The LAPD Is Spending Millions On Spy Tech to Beef Up Security

Amrita Khalid
Amrita Khalid is a tech journalist based in Los Angeles, and has written for Quartz, The Daily Dot, Engadget, Inc. Magazine and number of other publications. She got her start in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for CQ-Roll Call. You can send tips or pitches to amrita@dot.la or reach out to her on Twitter at @askhalid.
police officer surrounded by drones and security cameras ​
Andria Moore

Over the past six years, the LAPD spent millions in FEMA funds on automated license plate readers, predictive policing software and other spy tech, according to a new report. Authored by Action Center on Race and Economy (ACRE), the report focused on a counter-terrorism grant program under FEMA known as the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). First created in 2003, the UASI was designed to help the largest cities beef up their emergency preparedness agencies and prevent acts of domestic terrorism.


According to a mayor’s report from January 2021, the city of Los Angeles received roughly $20.5 million in UASI grants. Of that amount, approximately half (or $10 million) went to the LAPD. Notably, the amount was only a drop in the bucket of LAPD’s total $1.7 billion budget for the fiscal year 2020 (which was cut by $150 million in response to the movement to defund the police). For fiscal years 2022-2023, the L.A. City Council approved a $1.9 billion operating budget for the city’s police.

While local police departments receiving federal money is nothing new, critics say the existence of such funds gives the LAPD more freedom to invest in invasive technologies. LAPD recently came under scrutiny for its use of facial recognition technology. Earlier this month, an inspector’s general report revealed that the LAPD’s use of facial recognition software only resulted in a positive match about 55% of the time and the department didn’t track incidents where matches led to a misidentification of a suspect.

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR)

Between 2016 and 2020, the LAPD purchased at least $1.27 million worth of ALPR readers per report. ALPRs have increasingly come under increased scrutiny for their high error rates and risks to privacy. The high-speed cameras scan images of nearby license plates and alert police officers to stolen vehicles or people wanted for a crime.

One 2020 audit found that the LAPD and three other police departments were collecting massive amounts of data on drivers and their movements — but weren’t doing enough to protect privacy. According to the audit, of the 320 million images that the LAPD had stored in 2020, roughly 99.9% were unrelated to criminal investigations.

Palantir Data Fusion Platforms

Palantir, a controversial software company that has faced criticism for enabling government surveillance, has provided predictive policing software to the LAPD since 2011. The company’s platform can identify criminal “hotspots” by analyzing license plate photos, police reports, gang databases, regional crime reports and other data.

The exact amount of money the company has received from UASI is unclear. Public records requests, however, estimate that the LAPD spent over $20 million on Palantir software between 2009 and 2018.

It’s important to not that such tools have disproportionately targeted low-income individuals, people of color and unhoused people. Last year more than 1,400 mathematicians signed on to a letter criticizing predictive policing for its racial biases in the trade journal Notices of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). In 2019, PredPol (a predictive policing tool once used by the LAPD) faced criticism from mathematicians for using flawed algorithms that created feedback loops.

“If you build predictive policing, you are essentially sending police to certain neighborhoods based on what what they told you—but that also means you’re not sending police to other neighborhoods because the system didn’t tell you to go there,” University of Utah computing professor Suresh Venkatasubramanian toldMotherboard.

Radio Systems

Between 2016 and 2020, the LAPD spent roughly $24 million to upgrade their radio communications network through Motorola. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2007, the department’s two-way portable radio system was often unreliable and had been in need of an upgrade for years. Some officers even resorted to using their cell phones for field communications.

Critics noted that radio systems have allowed police to avoid public oversight in light of many cities encrypting their scanners in recent years. Furthermore, since 2020, many cities including Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, San Diego and others (though not Los Angeles) have opted to take their radio communications private in order to comply with a DOJ directive to protect private information. But critics warn that such a move prevents the media and the public from keeping track of criminal activity or public safety developments during natural disasters.

Cell Site Simulators

The LAPD also spent $630,000 of 2020 UASI funding on cell-site simulators — devices that look like cell towers that allow police to pinpoint the location of a specific smartphone. Cell site simulators can identify the unique IMSI number (international mobile subscriber identity) attached to every mobile device.

Also known as Stingrays or IMSI catchers, the devices can collect the content of SMS messages, voice calls and any websites visited. IMSI catchers essentially trick nearby mobile devices into connecting with them and then collect the data sent from the device, including its location and other personal data. Some devices even have the ability to intercept text messages and phone calls.

Cell site simulators are in ample use in California and and in major police departments throughout the country, including in cities like Chicago, Boston and New York City. Critics of cell site simulators say they function as dragnet surveillance tools — essentially capturing data from bystanders—and also can potentially interfere with 911 calls.

Social Media Surveillance

Skopenow — a social media monitoring company — counts the LAPD as one of its customers, along with the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Broward County, Florida. Last year, the software led to the arrests of three middle school students in Florida after police found threats they made on social media.

According to the company’s website, Skopenow functions as a sort of “analytical search engine” for social media. It claims it can inform customers when criminals post content related to drugs, weapons or stolen items. It also lets users easily view a person of interest’s mutual friends, shared vehicles, employment histories and business affiliations.

Since the ACRE report’s analysis doesn’t go past fiscal year 2020, it doesn’t capture recent developments in LAPD’s use of surveillance. In August, the L.A. Police Commission adopted rules that will require the LAPD to submit detailed proposals before acquiring new technology. It also needs to disclose which data will be collected on people and for how long it will be kept.

While such reform is definitely a start, critics point out that similar policies on facial recognition haven’t reigned in police abuse and have instead served as a cover.

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
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🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
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In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.

Pickleball

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Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle


Escape Room

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Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out


Day Trip to Catalina Island

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Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities


Top Golf

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Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo


SoFi Stadium Tour

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A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours


Corporate Volunteering

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Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch


Corporate Improv Sessions

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A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
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Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

🔦 Spotlight

Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.


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