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Chula Vista's contract with Motorola sells out residents' privacy, advocates say

The city of Chula Vista has become known for its aggressive use of drones and other police surveillance technology. Yet, city leaders insist they’re using these tools without jeopardizing the privacy of their law-abiding residents. However, KPBS’s Amita Sharma reports that Chula Vista is giving a private corporation wide control over any data on people collected by its police surveillance systems.

Part one of a two-part series.

The city of Chula Vista has gained a reputation in recent years for its extensive use of drones and other police surveillance technology. All the while, city leaders have insisted these tools do not jeopardize the privacy of their law-abiding residents.

However, while making these claims, the city inked a software contract with Chicago-based Motorola Solutions that gives the corporation-wide control over any data collected by its police surveillance systems, according to privacy advocates.

With no public debate and no competitive bidding, city council members in late 2020 approved the Motorola Solutions contract, which, among other things, allows it to use, copy, analyze, publish and offer subscription services to any data that’s called up on the police department’s new real-time operations center.

RELATED: San Diego County police share license plate data across the US

The data includes live social media feeds, information picked up by the agency’s automated license plate readers, known as ALPRs, and video captured by its drones sent out to 9-1-1 calls.

Civil liberties experts, who reviewed the contract, say it is a stunning example of a city selling out the privacy rights of its residents.

“This is really just chilling and it feels like handing over Californians' information wholesale to the surveillance vendors and a real dereliction of duty,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the New York City-based Surveillance Technology Security Project.

“We’re talking about a real-time, perpetual history of our lives, how we socialize. This is seeing who goes to church on Sunday and who goes to Friday prayers at a mosque. This is something that goes far beyond George Orwell’s worst nightmares.”

Chula Vista city leaders, including City Manager Maria Kachadoorian and City Attorney Glen Googins, both of whom signed the contract, refused to comment.

But in November, Mayor Mary Salas told KPBS “there’s always a concern” at city hall about trampling on the privacy rights of residents through new technology and that council members and staff are “ever watchful of it.”

“We have excellent people that really have dedicated their lives to this and that really are real students of this,” Salas said. “And I have faith in their expertise.”

RELATED: How Chula Vista became one of the most surveilled cities in the country

But Brian Hofer, who as executive director of the Oakland-based privacy advocacy group Secure Justice has reviewed scores of contracts between government and technology companies, expressed shock that Chula Vista had agreed to Motorola Solutions’ terms.

”I have never seen a contract this bad,” Hofer said. “If the Chula Vista City Council or administration or procurement folks reviewed this with the lens of protecting their residents' privacy and civil liberties, they completely failed.”

Chula Vista also agreed to allow Motorola Solutions to sell the data if it’s been “anonymized.” And Chula Vista is responsible for ensuring compliance with privacy laws, according to the contract.

Motorola Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.

Eric Thunberg-RTOC.jpg
Roland Lizarondo / KPBS
Chula Vista Police Captain Eric Thunberg discusses the purpose of the agency's real-time operation center inside the new facility. Dec. 7, 2021.

Officials outfoxed?

San Diego ACLU lawyer Mitra Ebadolahi contends the overall contract so lopsidedly favors Motorola Solutions that she wonders whether Chula Vista city officials understood the stakes or were simply outfoxed by the company’s high-priced lawyers.

“Either they lack the expertise to appropriately analyze and understand the contractual terms, in which case they shouldn't be entering into these contracts at all, or they understand these terms, and they're happily trading away the privacy rights of their residents,” Ebadolahi said.

The result is a likely financial windfall for Motorola Solutions, said Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Security Project.

“The data broker industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that is trying to take everything we do both in digital spaces and physical spaces and turn it into a product for the highest bidder,” Fox Cahn said.

RELATED: Chula Vista Is Building A Real-Time Crime Center

He said the industry thrives on commodifying every decision people make through tracking them throughout the day and then hawking goods to them.

“So the next time that you get that car ad or you get that ad for a pair of shoes, it may be in part because of information picked up on a police drone or an ALPR,” Fox Cahn said.

CHULA VISTA CITY HALL
Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Chula Vista City Hall, October 21, 2021.

No limits

A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology found that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are increasingly buying sensitive data on Americans from commercial data brokers. The practice allows them to circumvent obtaining warrants from a court.

Chula Vista's contract with Motorola sells out residents' privacy, advocates say

Speaker 1: (00:00)

The city of Chula Vista has become known for its aggressive use of drones and other police surveillance technology. Yet city leaders insist they're using these tools without jeopardizing the privacy of law abiding citizens. However, KPBS is Sharma reports that Chula Vista is giving a private corporation wide control over any data on people collected by its police surveillance systems.

Speaker 2: (00:25)

Chula Vista officials build the police department's new realtime operations center. As a state of the art public safety hub. Privacy advocates say it's a Trojan horse in late 2020 with no public debate and no competitive bidding. The Chula Vista city council voted unanimously to approve a contract with Motorola solutions that among other things allows the company to use copy, analyze, publish, and offer subscription services to any data that passes through its real time. Operat center. Those data include live social media feeds information picked up by the agency's automated license plate readers and video captured by its drones sent out to 9 1, 1 calls.

Speaker 3: (01:16)

We're talking about a real time perpetual history of our lives, our most intimate moments where we go, who we spend times with how we socialize. This is seeing who goes to church on Sunday and who goes to Friday prayers at a mosque. This is something that goes far beyond George Orwell's. Worst nightmares.

Speaker 2: (01:35)

Albert Fox Conn is executive director of the New York based surveillance technology oversight project.

Speaker 3: (01:42)

This is really just chilling. It feels like handing over Californian's information wholesale to these surveillance vendors and a real Delicia of duty

Speaker 2: (01:55)

Chula Vista city leaders refused to comment on the contract, but in November may or Mary Salas told K PBS quote, there's always a concern at city hall about trampling on the privacy rights of residents with new technology and that council members and staff are ever watchful of it on our staff.

Speaker 4: (02:16)

We have excellent people that really have dedicated their lives to this. And that really are real students of this. And I have faith in their

Speaker 2: (02:28)

Expertise. Advocates are especially alarmed that the city also granted Motorola solutions permission to sell any data run through its real time operation center. As long as it's anonymized,

Speaker 5: (02:42)

I have never seen a contract this bad.

Speaker 2: (02:45)

Brian Hofer is executive director of the Oakland based privacy advocacy group, secure justice.

Speaker 5: (02:51)

If the Chula Vista city council or administration or procurement folks reviewed this with the lens of protecting their residents, privacy and civil

Speaker 3: (02:59)

Liberties, they completely failed.

Speaker 2: (03:01)

Motorola did not respond to an interview request. San Diego, a C L U lawyer, Mitra IBA Lai contends the overall contract. So lopsidedly favors Motorola solutions that she wonders, whether Chula Vista city officials are understood the stakes or were simply outboxed by the company's high priced lawyers. Either

Speaker 6: (03:25)

They lack the expertise to appropriately analyze and understand these contractual terms. In which case they shouldn't be entering into these contracts at all, or they understand these terms and they happily trading away. The privacy rights of truly Mr. Residents

Speaker 2: (03:46)

Foxconn says that privacy loss is Motorola solutions. Financial windfall. The

Speaker 3: (03:52)

Data broker industry is a multibillion dollar industry that is trying to take everything. We do both in digital spaces and physical spaces and turn it into a product for the highest bidder.

Speaker 2: (04:07)

He and other privacy advocates. Won't lawmakers to borrow cities like Chula Vista from cutting deals with companies, giving them access to data on their residents. This is something

Speaker 3: (04:18)

That police departments should be PR affect us from not something that they should be

Speaker 2: (04:23)

Fueling from privacy security to national security tomorrow will tell you how Chula Vista police almost exclusively by their drones from a Chinese company suspected of spine for the Chinese government.

Speaker 1: (04:37)

Joining me as KPBS investigative reporter. Aha. Sherma. Aha. Welcome. It's good to

Speaker 2: (04:43)

Be here. Now.

Speaker 1: (04:44)

Motorola solutions contracted to provide software to Chula Vista's security hub. So how does Motorola solutions get access to data on Chula Vista residents? Well,

Speaker 2: (04:57)

The data that the Chula Vista police department pay up through its automated license plate readers through its drones has to pass through its real time operation center now because they've centralized all their information in one place. So when they call it up, when they're trying to solve a crime, it has to pass through this real time center. Motorola provides the software for this realtime operation center and through that software, they can access the data. So

Speaker 1: (05:31)

Why would the city of Chula Vista agree to these terms? That's

Speaker 2: (05:35)

A good question, Maureen. We were interested in knowing the answer to that question. We reached out to Mary Salas, she's the mayor of Chula Vista. We reached out to the city council, they approved the contract. Um, we also reached out to the city manager, Maria Kurian and the city attorney, Glen gins. They both signed the contract. I wanted to ask the city council and the mayor if they read the contract. And if so, did they understand the contract? And if they did, why did they think that the terms of this contract with Motorola served the privacy interest of the residents that they represent? But sadly, no one talked to me, no one felt like it was their duty to explain their decision to the public.

Speaker 1: (06:28)

Now, where and how could Motorola sell any of this data of things like drone footage or license plate images? Well, ex

Speaker 2: (06:37)

Fruits tell me that there is a very large, a very profitable data. Broker market runs in the multi-billions to trillions. And this is where companies look at people's habits and movements, and they try to figure out what kinds of goods and services they might be interested in. And that data, what helps them figure that out. So while the, the money value of this data is not clear to people like you and me for these companies who are interested in buying data, derived from the surveillance technology, it really helps them figure out what people might be interested in buying.

Speaker 1: (07:17)

And do we know if Motorola is actually using or selling any of the data picked up in Chula Vista?

Speaker 2: (07:24)

Well, that's a state Marine. We don't know exactly. And we really have no way of knowing. And that's one of the most troubling aspects of this type of surveillance technology and its consequences. According to privacy advocates for people's privacy rights are being violated. They just don't know exactly how or how often,

Speaker 1: (07:47)

Why did Chula Vista want to create this real time operation center in the first place

Speaker 2: (07:52)

Would hula Vista police officials say it takes all the information they need to respond to calls to, to, to solve crimes. And it puts all that information in one place in one system so that whatever police need to call up as an emergency situation or a crime is unfolding, they can call up right there. Throne footage, jail records, everything as, uh, chill Vista police, captain, Eric Sandberg told me last month, he said it basically gives us everything at our fingertips. And

Speaker 1: (08:26)

What do we know about the effectiveness of this kind of surveillance in actually preventing crime? Well, I have to

Speaker 2: (08:32)

Tell you, privacy advocates have really come out strongly against some of this technology. Many of them look, we're all for drones being used to rescue people and fight fires, but they worry about routinely sending them out to 9 1, 1 calls because of the footage that they can pick up on the way to the scene on the way back and even at the scene. Um, if you, if you look through these cameras, you can, you can make out people's faces. You can make out their backyards. You can see a lot that may not be part of the emergency situation and advocates also question the effectiveness of automated license plate readers. There was a study that was done by the independent Institute in Oakland, and it looked over 16 years of data from the Piedmont police department. And that study found no evidence that these license plate readers give law enforcement investigative leads or, or stopped vehicle theft. And until LA Vista, that police department's own statistics show a hit rate of less than 1% with vehicles tied to suspected crimes through these a P these license plate readers. Now you

Speaker 1: (09:49)

Have more coming up tomorrow about Chula Vista, law enforcement and its drones. Can you give us a preview?

Speaker 2: (09:55)

I can. The Chula Vista police department is using drones produced by a Chinese company that the Pentagon says poses potential threats to national security.

Speaker 1: (10:08)

That's tomorrow here on midday edition. And I've been speaking with K PS investigative reporter. Aha. Sharma. Aha. Thank you. You

Speaker 2: (10:16)

Thank you, Maureen.

Watchdog groups are calling on Congress to ban the practice.

Privacy advocates want lawmakers to bar cities like Chula Vista from cutting deals that give companies access to data on their residents.

UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said the Motorola Solutions contract illustrates how there are virtually no limits to what companies can do with people’s private information.

“The law is simply not caught up to technology,” Chemerinsky said. “The law traditionally has been that whatever we do in public is there for the world to see. But now there's the ability, through cameras and drones, to monitor what we do when we're out of our home all of the time. The information can be collated in a way that leaves us little with regard to privacy.”

RELATED: Chula Vista Police Drones Can Now Cover 100% Of City For Emergency Calls

Even without legal protections, Fox Cahn argued, people shouldn’t have to fear their public servants are surrendering their privacy to corporate America, or worse.

“This is something that police departments should be protecting us from, not something that they should be fueling,” he said.