Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mapping the players in the Peabody Energy bankruptcy

Peabody Energy – the world’s largest private sector coal corporation – filed for bankruptcy in April, the latest in a series of major coal company collapses. As Peabody’s bankruptcy hearings unfold, there is growing concern amongst environmental, labor, and indigenous justice groups that the company will use the bankruptcy process to pay back their big bank and hedge fund creditors and give bonuses to their white collar employees, but shirk financial responsibilities for environmental cleanups and pension and healthcare obligations to retired coal miners.

There are numerous stakeholders with competing interests involved in the Peabody bankruptcy, so some St. Louis activists used LittleSis to create a map detailing the players involved and their power networks.

Continue reading Mapping the players in the Peabody Energy bankruptcy

Republican Convention Host Committee Tied to Company Moving Jobs to Mexico

Yesterday, we looked at the host committee unfurling the carpet in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention this summer, including three locals with a number of questionable associations. Now we’re examining the Republican National Convention’s host committee chairs, most of whom are connected to an electrical equipment and car parts manufacturer called Eaton Corporation.

Continue reading Republican Convention Host Committee Tied to Company Moving Jobs to Mexico

Republican or Democrat? Both parties’ convention host committees represent the 1%

The host committees for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions are composed of wealthy officials who spend their day-to-day lives representing the interests of health insurers, fracking companies, banks and other large corporations.

Host committees are comprised of locals picked by party elites to represent the cities hosting each convention. This year’s Democratic National Convention is in Philadelphia, and features prominent political and business people from the region; likewise, influential Clevelanders sit on the host committee of the Republican National Convention.

Democratic Convention Hosted by Republican Donors, Anti-Obamacare Lobbyists, and Fracking Advocates

As a recent article in The Intercept pointed out, several of this year’s host committee members are hardly Democratic Party devotees. In fact, Independence Blue Cross CEO Daniel Hilferty, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen have donated thousands of dollars to Republican presidential and congressional candidates this cycle and actively undermined and lobbied against progressive policies including fracking regulations, Obamacare, and net neutrality regulations.

Click through the map below for details on how this year’s DNC host committee members are donating thousands of dollars to Republicans and undermining progressive causes.

Keep your eyes open for our next blog post on the Republican Nation Convention Host Committee!

You are being followed: The business of social media surveillance

LittleSis is partnering with MuckRock to investigate how police across the country are monitoring, tracking, and archiving public social media posts. To plug into our work, follow this link to file a freedom of information request using MuckRock’s platform.

In keeping with our mission to monitor and track the powers that be, we at LittleSis turned the surveillance gaze back onto the local forces monitoring social media. We not only dug into the corporate profiles of some of the companies police contract to snoop on your Tweets and Facebook rants, we also filed freedom of information requests to twenty police departments across the country to find out how, when, and why they monitor social media.

Brightplanet Specializes in analyzing “deep web” content
Geofeedia Develops location-based social media surveillance software
ZeroFOX “The Social Risk Management Company”™
Intrado Develops “Beware” threat scoring software
LifeRaft Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Magnet Forensics Develops digital forensics software
Media Sonar Technologies Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Signal Corporation Limited Develops Microsoft-sourced, NZ-based social media monitoring software

Before we started receiving documents from the police, we probed the power behind these eight firms to unravel the social-media-monitoring complex; you can peruse our list, completed using publicly available information, to learn more about each company. However, one particularly well-connected firm that we believe is worth highlighting here is ZeroFOX, which actively monitored prominent Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore and labeled some of them, including former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson, “threat actors.”

The company reached out to Baltimore officials first, offering it services pro-bono, which ZeroFOX executives painted as a selfless gesture of civic responsibility. But city officials may have been especially receptive to ZeroFOX’s pitch because of the powerful names standing behind it. The company’s leadership includes former NSA Director Mike McConnell, who is the former vice chair and current senior executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Robert Rodriguez, who has ties to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and a security firm started by top Bush-era security official Michael Chertoff.

In our information requests to police, we asked for contracts with the social media monitoring companies listed above, records of correspondence with these companies, documents containing social media monitoring policy, all records of archived social media postings, and more. We sent them out on January 28. As of May 17, we have received documents from five departments, including Austin, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Philadelphia police.

All of the contracts we’ve received so far mention a company called Geofeedia. Previous reports indicate that Geofeedia also has contracts with Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Because the company was such a common thread, we decided to focus our reporting on Geofeedia, which appears to be the hardest hustler in the social media surveillance game.

Geofeedia’s business grows “7-fold” between 2014 and 2015

Started in 2011 by Phil Harris, a businessperson with stints at Priceline and Match.com, Geofeedia allows users to target a geographic area on their computer and scoop up the public social media posts of everybody within the target range. The posts are harvested from the companies with which Geofeedia has patents, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Yik Yak, Seno-Weibo, and others. In addition to targeting a geographical region, users can also use Geofeedia to search social media posts based on people and keywords.

Geofeedia example

In an interview published on April 20, Harris claimed that his company invented “social media intelligence,” and that in the near future Geofeedia would continue to grow “extremely rapidly.” A year earlier, Harris said the company had 500 paying customers and had grown 7-fold since 2014. Its clients not only include law enforcement, but also news organizations like CNN, BBC, Fox and Mashable, as well as companies interested in gauging customers’ “brand experience” in real time.

Geofeedia is financed by the venture capital firms Silversmith Capital Partners and Hyde Park Venture Partners. Silversmith was launched in 2015 by alumni of Bain Capital, Bain Company and Spectrum Equity, while Hyde Park shares some alumni of the digital marketing company Salesforce.com with Geofeedia. In April 2016, The Intercept’s Lee Fang revealed that Geofeedia also received startup funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and had a contract with the FBI.

In addition to touting its utility for for marketers as well emergency first responders, Harris also said in a radio interview that Geofeedia specialized in monitoring social movements like the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests in Greece. Company representatives also suggested that police testing out Geofeedia software use it to monitor protests in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014. Another representative from the company confirmed to LittleSis that the software was used in 2014 and 2015 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, whose owner, Canada-based Triple Five Group, contracts with Geofeedia.

Police departments using Geofeedia to monitor social media

At press time we possessed dozens of documents from five police departments, and as more documents come in, we’ll run stories about what we receive. Here’s what we have so far:

Austin Police Department

We obtained three files from the Austin Police Department, including a copy of a contract between Geofeedia and APD, several emails between the company and the police department, and document acknowledging a pilot program in July 2014.

On June 24, 2015, the Austin PD signed a $9,500 contract with Geofeedia that gave an unlimited number of user licenses to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center. The contract, which spanned from June 24 to March 31, 2016, also included “ongoing priority support, one user-training session per month,” and unlimited alerts. It also included up to 200,000 of unspecified “items” of data a month. It is not known whether APD is pursuing a new contract with the firm.

Emails between Austin’s Financial Services Department and the Police Department also indicate that two other social media monitoring companies are registered vendors with the city. These include Motorola-partnered Intrado, which makes software that uses a person’s social media postings (among many other things) to assign a threat-level to them, and Brightplanet, which specializes in deep web data mining. Neither Intrado nor Brightplanet have ever signed contracts with the city of Austin, according to city emails.

Oakland Police Department

LittleSis received an invoice from 10/22/14 from the Oakland Police Department detailing a purchase from Geofeedia. It yields few details: the invoice was for a $8,500 annual subscription for “Geofeedia ‘Cloud’ based Social Media Platform.”

When we followed up, Oakland PD did not tell us whether or not it renewed its contract with Geofeedia after October 2015, but informed us that they were searching for more documents pertaining to our request.

San Diego Police Department

San Diego PD gave us a purchase order as well as an order form and a document indicating its justification for the purchase. The department bought an annual subscription for $18,000 that kicked in on July 1, 2015 and allows users to access “up to five real-time streams” that had the ability to track “influencers” — people on social media with particularly large followers and influence — and could translate social media postings from Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, and Sina Weibo.

In a “Business Case Concept” document, Assistant Police Chief Al Guaderrama acknowledges that SDPD has used information culled from social media sources “in conjunction with traditional investigative techniques,” and that Geofeedia would allow police to aggregate social media in a more effective way:

Analysts and investigators currently use free and basic tools similar to Geofeedia. However, these tools do not permit data collection, aggregation, downloading for analysis, or alerts. Additionally, limited access to the type of social media platforms and postings that are available only allow basic analysis of social media activities.

The document also says $25,000 was allocated to the police department for the Geofeedia purchase, although the subscription only cost the department $18,000. It also seems to indicate that a renewed Geofeedia subscription will be factored into the department’s budget in the future:

Annual renewal costs will be included in the Department’s Operating Budget.

San Jose Police Department

From the San Jose Police Department we obtained a purchase order form for Geofeedia services, a bidding contract, several emails between the police department and the office of the city management (all here), an investment proposal from the police department, and over one hundred pages of email between the police department, city officials, representatives from three social media monitoring firms, including Geofeedia.

The contract includes an annual subscription to Geofeedia services from 9/15/15 through 9/14/16 for the department’s special investigations unit. The services purchased are capable of storing up to 500,000 social media posts a month, gathered from a max search radius of 15 kilometers that gathers posts from Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, Sina, Weibo, and VK.

The investment proposal, which states that SJPD investigators use Geofeedia software “almost daily,” reveals a number of startling ways San Jose police have used Geofeedia for noncriminal matters.

SJPD first put the software to use when protesters staged a die-in during a speech given by Indian Prime Minister Narendi Modi in September 2015, monitoring the social media postings of protesters to receive “real time updates on potential threats.” In another instance, SJPD used Geofeedia to manage its public image, after coming across a YouTube video revealing a police “use of force situation” against a citizen. The excerpt is worth quoting in its entirety:

In yet another example, on December 9, 2015, an SIU officer noticed someone posted a use of force situation on YouTube. No one from the Department was aware of the posting, which had a potential for unfavorable media scrutiny. Internal Affairs and the Media Relations Unit were immediately notified as was the Chief’s Office. Early warning notifications like this can assist the Department with messaging and transparency.

From the cache of emails we received, we learned that two other social media monitoring firms unsuccessfully vied for a contract with SJPD in 2015. These include LifeRaft and Media Sonar Technologies, which both specialize in location-based social media tracking software. Additionally, internal emails also indicate that Geofeedia software was used during Super Bowl 50 by SJPD’s “covert response unit.”

Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and the Santa Clara Police Department

In an email obtained from the San Jose Police Department and dated 9/1/2015, SJPD Lieutenant Michael Sullivan says that the Santa Clara Police Department had been using Geofeedia Services on loan from the local Northern California fusion center:

Santa Clara using Geofeedia

Philadelphia Police Department

From the Philadelphia Police Department we obtained a purchase order, a standard operating procedure for the department’s Social Media Investigative Support Team, and a dozen pages explaining why most of our open records request could not be fulfilled (all here).

PPD purchased an annual subscription from Geofeedia for $26,000 in February 2015, and the department told LittleSis it has not renewed the contract. Like Austin, PPD’s subscription included an unlimited number of user licenses for its local fusion center, the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.

The police department’s standard operating procedure for social media, which appears to have been issued by the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, contains more information on how when Philadelphia surveil social media. For example, police can use social media to produce “assessment reports” about First Amendment protected activities.

Police also store information from social media in the form of screenshots, printouts of chat logs, and copies of URLs, and are expected to stay vigilant on social media even when they’re off the clock. But much still is left unsaid: Nearly 3 pages describing how police can mine public social media posts for intelligence was blacked out.

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Because social media incites within us a compulsion to share our thoughts, even potentially illegal ones, law enforcement sees it as a tool to preempt behavior that appears threatening to the status quo. We caught a glimpse of where this road could take us in Michigan, where the local news recently reported that a man calling for civil unrest on Facebook because of the Flint water crisis was nearly the target of a criminal investigation. At its worst, social media monitoring could create classes of “pre-criminals” apprehended before they commit crimes if police and prosecutors are able to argue that social media postings forecast intent. This is the predictive business model to which Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris aspires.

LittleSis is still waiting for documents from 16 other police departments, including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, DC (Metropolitan Police), Minneapolis, Oakland (more), Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Seattle, and St. Louis. Both Dallas and St. Louis have together demanded hundreds of dollars for documents, while Baltimore rejected our request and Chicago was unhelpful.

There’s a wealth of information out there that we can access, but getting it has to be a broad effort that includes everybody, including you. To that end, MuckRock is launching a crowdfunded, crowdsourced campaign to reveal how police across the country are using social media to monitor people and the events they attend.

Interested in following up on a request we’ve sent out, or filing a brand new one to a department we’ve yet to contact? Follow this link and file a request. You can use the template we used, or you can create your own.

Happy sleuthing!

Update, 5/18

The Boston Police Department also contracts with Geofeedia, according to publicly available records. The police department submitted a $6,700 check to the company on January 26, 2016. The records were surfaced and posted on privacysos.org by Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU – Massachusetts.

Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

Several of the officials charged with regulating Texas’s prison labor program, wherein thousands of workers behind bars are compelled to produce goods and provide services for free, are connected to some of the richest and most powerful institutions and people in the state.

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), the prison industry division within the state’s Department of Criminal Justice, has authority over how much compensation inmates working for the state receive for their labor. Currently, inmates working for TCI are not paid for the work done while serving their time; the only inmates who are paid anything are the small fraction who are employed by TCI’s private sector prison industries program.

Continue reading Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

Since announcing his $41 billion affordable housing plan in 2014, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has encountered fierce resistance from grassroots housing advocates, who have pointed out that the plan would displace thousands of low-income families and spur gentrification in neighborhoods targeted for rezoning.

Until very recently, that opposition was also matched by the city’s 59 community boards and five borough presidents, which near unanimously struck down rezoning proposals that composed the wider housing plan. But last week the City Council’s land use committee, satisfied with amendments to the plan that partially expand the number of affordable units, voted 15-2 for its approval. Some advocates have celebrated the changes; others noted that thousands of low-income New Yorkers would still be left out of the deal. The full City Council body is expected to vote on the mayor’s plan this week.

Rarely mentioned amid the political jostling are the names of the developers pushing the plan forward. Here’s one: Ron Moelis of L+M Development. In terms of financial and personal ties to the de Blasio administration, Moelis stands out among his peers as the affordable housing developer behind de Blasio’s plan.

Continue reading The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

The payday loan family behind Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s deregulatory zeal

The payday loan industry has a new friend in Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wasserman Schultz is co-sponsoring a piece of legislation – ironically titled the “Consumer Protection and Choice Act” – which would delay and eventually block new regulations sought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Why is Rep. Wasserman Schultz going to bat for an industry that is bleeding her constituency dry to the tune of $280 million per year? One possibility: Florida’s leading family of payday loan profiteers is a major donor to Wasserman Schultz, and shelled out a series of large contributions to her campaign last June. Perhaps she is repaying the favor.

For Florida-based Amscot Financial, predatory lending is a family business. CEO Ian MacKechnie – who is worth millions – has said that he “sympathizes with his hard-luck customers” and that he wants to “feel like we’re offering valuable services at reasonable prices.”

MacKechnie does not exactly bring a strong ethical record to this work, however. In the 1990s, Amscot Financial pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and agreed to end its insurance business after regulators found that it was tricking customers into buying unnecessary financial products.

MacKechnie runs the business with his wife and two sons, but this is hardly a mom and pop operation. Amscot currently has 235 payday lending locations across Florida, and MacKechnie said he wanted to be the “Walmart of financial service” in a 2009 interview.

To that end, Amscot consistently spends $320,000 per year on lobbying, a total of nearly $3 million over the last 10 years. Their lobbyists include Holland and Knight’s Jim Davis, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and once included former FL Governor Charlie Crist’s Chief of Staff, Eric Eikenberg.

When it comes to politicians, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a MacKechnie family favorite. Since 2010, Ian MacKechnie and his family have donated $9,600 to her and $38,850 to her PAC, Democrats Win Seats, placing the family among her top all-time donors.

In two days last June, not long before she co-sponsored the payday lending bill, they cut a series of checks totaling $10,200 to her and her PAC.

The MacKechnies are also fans of Dennis Ross, the lead sponsor of the bill. He has brought in $19,600 from AmScot Financial.

Click through the map below for details on these contributions.

Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

A hedge-fund backed front group opposing bankruptcy in Puerto Rico is in disarray. Board members of the group, the 60 Plus Association, are suing the group’s president, Amy Frederick, for secretly funneling payments to companies controlled by her husband.

Hedge funds recruited 60 Plus to form a group, Main Street Bondholders, that pretends to represent retirees opposing bankruptcy for the island. The hedge funds have been trying to prevent bankruptcy and promote austerity on the island in order to ensure higher payouts on their debt holdings. They’ve been using a range of legal and advocacy strategies to promote their agenda, which comes at a great cost to Puerto Ricans.

Continue reading Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

New investigation reveals corporate capture of air regulator in L.A. County gas leak

Following a long delay, things are moving quickly with the environmentally catastrophic methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas facility in Los Angeles, first noticed in October 2015. After leaking about 94,000 metric tons of methane into the air—far and away the state’s biggest single contributor to global warming at the moment—11 different local, state, and federal agencies are now suing or investigating criminal charges for the company responsible, Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), including misdemeanor charges filed by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. The California Senate also passed a moratorium that, if signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, would prevent SoCalGas from injecting gas into the leaking well as well as 18 gas storage wells at Aliso Canyon that are as old and potentially just as decrepit (there are 115 wells in total).

With so many moving parts, it could be easy to overlook the role of the Southern Coast Air Quality Management District board, the regional regulator in Southern California that has broad authority to enforce air quality standards mandated by federal and state law. However, the SCAQMD is the only government agency with direct authority to abate the air nuisance in the area surrounding the leak, which has forced thousands to leave their homes in recent months.

Continue reading New investigation reveals corporate capture of air regulator in L.A. County gas leak

Behind the scenes: The push to repeal the ban on oil exports

Since the oil exports ban was repealed on December 18th, 2015, there has been a slow trickle of news detailing the oil industry’s behind-the-scenes campaign to shape this critical policy decision. The most recent piece, from Paul Blumenthal, detailed large, direct corporate donations from oil and gas companies to the Senate Leadership Fund in the last half of 2015 when debate around the repeal was heating up.

The Senate Leadership Fund is a PAC with the mission of maintaining a Republican majority in the Senate and has ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell through its founder, Steven Law. Law is a long-time ally of McConnells and previously served as his Chief of Staff.

The newly minted Senate Majority Leader became a powerful ally in the industry campaign, calling the export ban a “relic of the 70s.”

Blumenthal’s exposé is the latest to reveal the oil industry’s multi-pronged effort to secure massive profits with the export ban repeal.

The below map (click through for a larger version) illustrates aspects of this effort:

Continue reading Behind the scenes: The push to repeal the ban on oil exports