Janine Jackson: While an ethics fellow at Harvard, young programmer and activist Aaron Swartz downloaded articles en masse from the academic database JSTOR, triggering the aggressive pursuit of MIT’s IT department, and eventually what’s been described as a grand jury runaway train gone off the rails. Threatened with decades in prison and a seven-figure fine because, in the words of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, “stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar,” Swartz took his own life in 2013. After his death, it was revealed that he, in fact, had authorized access to JSTOR from MIT.
The persecution of Aaron Swartz was a sign of the animus with which some system-representing actors will go after relatively powerless individuals they choose to make examples of. It’s also been taken up as a call to advance the demand to liberate data, for regular citizens to be able to get the information they need to confront power, and to have a say in decisions affecting them.
Joining us now to talk about that work is Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance and co-coordinator of the group Oakland Privacy. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Tracy Rosenberg.
Tracy Rosenberg: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Aaron Swartz wasn’t alone in his concerns or values, and his projects and ideas persist, including in work that you’re involved in on public surveillance by police, and the technology that facilitates and indeed drives that. You talked about it when we spoke a few years ago back in 2018. Can you just catch us up on that project?
TR: Sure. Aaron Swartz Day, which people might or might not be familiar with, is an annual hackathon dedicated to continuing Swartz’s work, to basically free the information, in whatever interesting and exciting ways people can come up with to do that work.
Some years ago, they reached out to us regarding how the hackathon could support policing and surveillance transparency work. And so the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project was born, and among other things, it’s filed hundreds of public records requests, looking for information on surveillance equipment. And it has sued police and sheriff departments, including in Sacramento, Fresno and Long Beach.
Our latest project is called the Bad Apple Database, and the reason for that name is the common idea that problems in policing are related to “bad apples,” or just a small number of specific people. So the idea of the Bad Apple Database was that we should identify who some of those bad apples are, and how we can get them out of policing.
So Bad Apple has four basic parts. The first is we have a database of police oversight commissions throughout the country, which is now up to 178 entries. We have public records templates for requesting information on police misconduct and surveillance activities. We have a fully anonymous, super secure tip line. And we have a growing database of actual police misconduct and investigatory reports.
JJ: And I bet that private tip submission form has more privacy protection than the sort of “crimestopper” hotlines that we see police and media collaborating on, in which they encourage people to sort of vigilante on their neighbors. Privacy is obviously a serious concern for people who are wanting to talk about wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.
TR: Yes, it’s important for people to understand that our anonymous tip line is so anonymous that, in fact, we don’t even have people’s IP information if they choose to use it.
So I do have an announcement that’s going to be formally made at Aaron Swartz Day this year, which will be at the Internet Archives on November 13, which is we have produced an API for the Bad Apple Database, which basically lets people take the information that we are collecting on that site and do interesting things. So for those who are tech-oriented, we think the API is a pretty exciting development.
JJ: And what’s that going to do, exactly? What does that mean?
TR: An API basically allows people to get into the back end of some of the data that we’ve collected, and be able to manipulate it, move it around, express it in different ways. So you might, for example, create a heat map of where oversight commissions are located in the US. Or you may be able to use the public records template to issue a large amount of public records requests. Basically, it’s a tool.
And it’s very much in the spirit of Aaron Swartz’s work, which is to basically say, this is public information that we should be able to use to advance policy goals. Let’s get it out there in the public domain.
JJ: The backdrop of this work, and the need for this work, is the rise of urban mass surveillance, or “neighborhoods watched,” as a piece last month from the New Orleans Gulf Coast newsroom The Lens phrased it. Just to clarify, for people who don’t know, we’re talking about surveillance technology being deployed widely in communities, that sometimes even the elected officials don’t know that law enforcement are using this technology. So this is really a matter about getting access to information that everyone in the community should know.
TR: Yes, that is absolutely correct. When it comes to surveillance technology, as we’ve said for years, it’s a black box. The decisions are made by law enforcement. The implementation is done by police departments that, by their own accounts, are full of what we call bad apples. And it’s simply a fact that police misconduct records have been largely sealed. In California, we just passed laws in 2018 and again in 2020, SB1421 followed by SB16. In New York, I believe it’s called Article 50. Is that correct, Janine?
JJ: I’m not sure.
JJ: But I think it’s news we should learn, right?
TR: Absolutely. But it’s a similar sort of legislation that for a long time made it extremely hard to access police misconduct records. And we’re talking about sustained findings that cops are doing things wrong. And the reality is, we could talk about bad apples all day and all night. But there needs to be action in identifying problematic cops doing problematic things and getting them off the force. Because these are public servants. And we can’t have these positions filled with bad apples that are dangerous to people. Can’t do it.
JJ: Well, I perhaps conflated two things, because in addition with the Bad Apple, which is about tracking police misconduct and records, which are often not shared, part of the work is also about tracking the equipment and the tools that police and law enforcement are allowed to use, that they maybe have got from the federal government, things like facial recognition, license plate readers, that listeners may have heard of, that are being deployed by law enforcement in their communities in ways that, as I say, sometimes not even the elected officials know about. That’s kind of a different arm of this work, but it’s also relevant.
TR: What links it together is the issue of transparency. And transparency is a tool by which we capture both the scope and the extent of surveillance activity, the scope and extent of police misconduct, and the ways in which, when things go wrong, it is hidden from the public. As we know, internal affairs is a black box, right? Nobody knows what happens. And surveillance technology, again, what’s being bought, what’s being deployed, where is it being used, and how is it being used, is also a black box.
So what we’re basically trying to do is provide tools for people to do the kind of digging and uncovering that Open Privacy and Aaron Swartz Day have been doing for years and years. Because the reality is, these are small groups, and they can’t be everywhere, like the problem is. The problem is everywhere. So it’s really about giving people tools, so they can do this kind of work in their own communities, and so we can basically reach transparency critical mass, which is not going to happen just from one handful of folks doing it in one place. It’s going to happen from organized, coordinated activities all over the country.
JJ: Thank you, and let me just say, finally, that these accountability tools are first and foremost and most importantly tools for citizen engagement, for citizens to learn and then take action. But they are also journalistic resources. There’s got to be a committed relationship, if you will, between openness advocates and journalists. And so what would you like to see reporters taking up with regard to this set of issues?
TR: I definitely think that has been growing over the years, and it’s a wonderful development to see. I think certainly in past years, there was some tension there, between citizens who took it upon themselves to do transparency work and the media themselves.
But that is starting to change. And there are two different parts of this. One is that journalists themselves can use these kinds of tools and can do this kind of work. And there’s a great deal of journalists who have stepped into that space.
And, secondly, the press is a way to amplify what’s found. Because, yes, you can have a treasure trove of documents that you’ve uncovered. But if that information doesn’t get out to the community at large, then its value in terms of changing policy, and actions being taken, is limited.
So the press has an enormous role in partnering with transparency advocates to basically say, give me what you’ve got, so we can put it on the television, so we can put it in the newspaper, so we can send it out in our subscription email, so we can make sure that everybody knows what has been uncovered here, what it means, the context for it, and what actions should happen as a result.
JJ: Well, thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Tracy Rosenberg. She’s from Media Alliance and Oakland Privacy, as well as a number of other groups. Tracy Rosenberg, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
TR: Thank you, Janine.