Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard’s podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.
Inside an exhibition hall at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Washington DC, an apparent Rhode Island police officer was talking to a representative from law enforcement contracting giant Axon. The pair were both attending the winter conference for the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) held earlier this month. The cop said that Jimmy Manni, the colonel of the Rhode Island State Police, is an avid hunter, and that there just happens to be a hunting farm in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
“You guys have boatloads of money and if it was me, and I worked for you, I would contact that farm and have a hunting day” with the chief, the officer suggested. “You’d have him all to yourself on a farm with a dog squad. You know, bang, bang, bang.”
“Bring the chiefs up. I’ll tell you right now, you might as well bring the contracts up with you and it’s a done deal,” the police officer continued.
What he was suggesting, essentially, was that Axon curry favor with a senior police officer by taking them on a hunting holiday, in the hopes the officer would buy the company’s products.
“We’ll look into that. Thank you for the intel, that’s helpful,” the Axon representative replied. “Yeah, I think anything to separate ourselves from the pack would be a good thing for us.”
What the officer and the Axon representative did not know was that Jack Poulson, from transparency organization Tech Inquiry and who was standing near the men, was secretly recording their conversation. Poulson was attending the conference and recording candid conversations like this one. He also filmed seminars and talks held throughout the day while displaying his camera. Eventually, organizers and speakers realized he was recording.
The recordings provide rare insight into the very frank discussions that take place inside a law enforcement conference that journalists, activists, or researchers ordinarily did not hear. Companies at the conference included facial recognition firm Clearview AI, Axon, automated license plate scanner and surveillance camera company Flock, social media surveillance firm Dataminr, Verizon, and a host of other surveillance technology corporations and police contractors. The conference is held so that these companies can market their tech to law enforcement around the country, and so police officers can talk about how they use the technology and other trends they are seeing. It is, essentially, a networking event.
Beyond that exchange, the recordings made by Poulson and other material include evidence of:
- A retired Chief of Police joking about law enforcement robots going into women’s locker rooms. He added that some law enforcement robots become immobile when women’s bikinis get entangled in their drive tracks.
- A representative for Dataminr, a company that works with Twitter to source tweets en masse and uses other open source information, said the firm is getting into “drone stuff.” (A spokesperson denied this to Motherboard).
- Axon has agreements with various drone manufacturers to feed their data into Axon’s overarching data product, a company representative said in one conversation.
- The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Southern Poverty Law Center designated hate group, had a booth in the event’s exhibitors hall.
Attendees of the conference “can join high-level leadership from federal agencies, members of Congress, and very active sheriffs who come together to explore current legislation, learn about relevant topics, and explore trending technologies and products,” according to its website. As well as seminars such as “DRUGS, DEATH, DESTRUCTION, AND THE US BORDER” and “INCREASING WOMEN IN LAW ENFORCEMENT,” attendees can walk through a hall where various surveillance and contracting companies set up booths. Last week Motherboard reported that another exhibiting vendor called ODIN Intelligence is marketing a tool to law enforcement that would use facial recognition to identify people experiencing homelessness.
In another comment made near the Axon booth, a police officer said “He doesn’t take any shit either. If you’re an illegal in his county, you better fuckin’ run and hide, because you’re gonna disappear.”
“Well, that’s good, right?,” the Axon representative replied, according to the recordings.
During a scheduled talk called Personal Robotics, The Future of Law Enforcement, John D. Abbey, a retired Chief of Police who is now with contractor SafeFlight Corporation, said that “Now, I know we can trust law enforcement officers to always do the right thing.” The audience laughed in response. “There’s no chance that that robot is going to be run into the womens’ locker room,” he added, with the audience laughing again. “Or, in some places, the man’s locker room. Or the other locker room.”
“And one of the things that I learned that I’ll never forget is one of the worst hazards for a robot searching a house is bikini underwear—female bikini underwear—it better than anything else gets picked up by the tracks and it just, it stops the whole operation,” he added. “We’re trying to figure out how we’re gonna test that one.”
“I think there’s gonna be a frenzy to give…,” he continued, and looked at Poulson filming, who wasn’t secretly recording at this point, but was doing so obviously. “I’m being recorded here, so don’t quote me. Ah, go ahead and quote me. I think there’s gonna be a flood of money coming out. Because that’s all politicians can do. They don’t, they just don’t have the mindset and the tools to deal with crime. That’s what we’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to do. All they can do is give us money. Particularly before the election next year, there’s gonna be, it’s just gonna be an endless flood of money. So, I look forward to that.” Abbey did not respond to a request for comment sent via LinkedIn.
A theme that Poulson brought up across multiple conversations were so-called “real-time crime centers” and “common operating pictures.” Generally, these are where companies want to offer products that display a variety of real-time and other information to their customers all at once, rather than simply offering one tool or capability.
“It’s the buzzword nowadays,” a representative from license plate reading company Flock told Poulson.
“The theory is, you bring all of this data—evidence—into the same. It’s the centralized hub. So, even if you have third party evidence—CCTV, Ring doorbell, whatever it is—you want to encourage them to bring it into our system,” the representative from Axon told Poulson.
“We’re definitely getting into drone stuff,” a representative of Dataminr said during one recorded conversation. “Even, like, traffic cameras, that’s a new thing for us. We’re able to have image detection to be able to pull if there are emergency vehicles going down the street from traffic cameras. So, yeah, it’s—our ultimate goal is like, okay, you’re going to put a lawn chair anywhere in the world and just watch what’s happening.” A Dataminr spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that “Dataminr does not integrate any form of drone data into any of its products including First Alert, and has no current plans to integrate such data into First Alert,” referring to its public sector product.
Poulson told Motherboard in an online chat that “I attended and recorded much of the commercial surveillance side of the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Winter Conference because the branding is often in terms of supporting ‘first responders’—which serves as a trojan horse for police surveillance.”
“I noticed Twitter firehose partner Dataminr had a booth nearby Axon (formerly known as Taser), controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI, and the anti-immigration hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform and wanted to document the close proximity,” he added.
Do you have information on surveillance companies? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the course of the three day conference, attendees and National Sheriffs Association organizers noticed Poulson filming and confronted him about it.
“We’ve also had sheriffs come up to us and complain about being recorded in seminars. So, if you have any recordings, I’d please ask you to delete them,” one National Sheriffs Association member asked Poulson.
Later, when Poulson was using his laptop, a woman approached him.
“Hi there, I’m Megan with NSA [National Sheriffs Association],” she said.
“Oh, hi. Nice to meet you,” Poulson replied.
“Hey, you’re with?” she asked. Poulson said the name of the company he had used to buy a ticket.
“Okay, thanks for being here. What’s next on your agenda?” the woman asked. Poulson said he hadn’t decided yet.
“Okay, very cool. Well, thank you for coming. Nice to have you.” the woman said, before walking off.
The Rhode Island State Police did not respond to a request for comment on the hunting holiday comments.
“Axon has a longstanding commitment to organizational ethics, and as such we have certain guidelines and restrictions in place to ensure that all business dealings are conducted ethically and above reproach. We take these matters seriously and are committed to doing business transparently and in compliance with federal, state, and municipal laws,” Axon told Motherboard in a statement.