Trial Over, City Moves Forward to Purchase Police Access to Spokeo’s Online Data Collection Services

Published : Wednesday, November 8, 2017 | 6:40 AM

Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell has confirmed that the City has issued a purchase order to Spokeo, Inc., a so-called people search firm which aggregates online data, “for the as-needed use of the company’s internet search services” by the Pasadena Police Department.

Civil rights activists have objected to the plan, saying the use of Spokeo’s services amounts to invasive mass surveillance and that it allows police access to a vast amount of data on people who are not under suspicion of having committed any crimes.

“These technologies are being deployed as a mechanism to surveil people’s social media posting and activities,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Mohammed Tajsar said last Friday at a meeting of Pasadena’s Progressive Discussion Group.

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union released a letter written to the Pasadena Police Department in which it formally urged the Department to “end its relationship” with Spokeo and asked police not to use aggregated social media data collected from Pasadena residents. At that time, City officials declined to comment on the letter other than to confirm the City had a relationship with Spokeo.

Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez and City Manager Steve Mermell attended the November 3 Progressive Discussion Group to address the use of Spokeo.

Sanchez acknowledged that there is concern about the potential for abuse of the data Spokeo collects.

“I can tell you that in my knowledge that doesn’t exist in the Pasadena Police Department,” Sanchez said. “We’re accountable to you and we’re accountable to the City Manager and to the City Council.”

The Police Department found it was able to track which officers used the service during a trial subscription period, Sanchez said.

Sanchez pointed to the system’s benefits.

With the new Spokeo for Law Enforcement software, investigators are able to connect to over 12 billion records that link traditional public records with data from social media and get results within seconds, according to company claims.

As Sanchez explained to the group, “If we were searching for your loved one, or for your lost child, the question would be, ‘Wouldn’t you want us using those kinds of tools to find your family members?’”

Still, Tajsar said, the ACLU’s wariness centers on “how police department and city municipalities generally use technologies that impact the lives of everyday residents and what process is involved in the activation of those technologies.”

Tasjar was joined by several other attendees who said the public should be told more clearly about high-technology programs the city is evaluating and have a say prior to their use or purchase.

“We want to shed light on this particular program, but also raise a concern that residents ought to, when police departments are and cities are using technology like this, residents should be really at the forefront of that conversation,” said Tajsar.

City Manager Steve Mermell says the use of investigative tools such as Spokeo is categorized as an administrative policy matter.

“The Chief and I have been talking about it, the Mayor and I have chatted about it, I’ve talked to others about it and I think there is a difference,” said Mermell about the difference between personal use and investigative use by police departments.

“There’s a difference when the police department is using it,” added Mermell.

Mermell listed a few technologies that are now commonplace within the police department such as audio-visual, mobile data terminals, body cameras, and automated license plate readers.

“While looking at our existing [technology] policies, it’s given me some pause that we should probably develop a policy that would relate to this type of a service,” said Mermell who noted that a subscription service such as Spokeo differs from in-house technology.

Prior to Friday’s discussion, Mermell said he allowed himself to be the subject of a Spokeo search by city staff and acknowledged that some minor information about him was incorrect or missing, such as the names of his children and parents.

“It’s fairly superficial data,” said Mermell.

These small inaccuracies raise even bigger red flags for Tasjar.

In August, a federal appeals court revived a California man’s lawsuit accusing Spokeo Inc of publishing an online profile about him that was filled with mistakes and accused Spokeo of willfully violating the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, with potential damages of $1,000, according to Reuters.

The case was significant because the man tried to pursue a class action, which if successful could expose Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and other online data providers to mass claims in similar lawsuits.

When asked if the City has a contract with Spokeo, Sanchez responded that “the trial period came and went.”

“I don’t have a contract with Spokeo,” he said.

Later that afternoon, City Manager Steve Mermell confirmed in an e-mail to Pasadena Now, that the City has issued purchase order #1181232-00 with Spokeo Inc., in the amount of $4,794 “for the as-needed use of the company’s internet search services.”

Mermell added that the contract was for the Pasadena Police Department’s use.