LAPD scopes out Israeli drones, ‘big data’ solutions

For the first nine days of February, eight of the Los Angeles Police Department’s top brass were 7,500 miles away from home, being shuttled around Israel in a minibus.
February 11, 2014

For the first nine days of February, eight of the Los Angeles Police Department’s top brass were 7,500 miles away from home, being shuttled around Israel in a minibus.

“They complained because it was like in the army — they went from place to place to place, and they needed some rest,” joked Arie Egozi, a partner at i-HLS, the Israeli homeland-security news site that organized the LAPD tour. “You know, the Israelis want to push everything.”

LAPD Deputy Chief Jose Perez, a good-natured 30-year veteran of the department who oversees its central bureau, tweeted updates at nearly every stop. On Feb. 2, he shared a group photo of the Los Angeles delegation visiting the corporate headquarters of Nice Systems, an Israeli security and cyber intelligence company that can intercept and instantly analyze video, audio and text-based communications. (A seemingly tongue-in-cheek inspirational poster on the wall behind them reads: “Every voice deserves to be heard.”) A couple days later, Perez posed for a photo with Samuel Bashan, whom he called “Israel’s premier bomb expert,” at a fancy group dinner.

The group visited private security firms and drone manufacturers, as well as the terror-prone Ashdod Port, a museum in Sderot full of old rockets shot from nearby Gaza (the same one United States President Barack Obama visited on his 2008 campaign trip to Israel), and a “safe city” underground control center in the large suburb of Rishon LeZion, which receives live streams from more than 1,000 cameras with license plate recognition installed throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the tour attracted some skepticism back home. Max Blumenthal, a journalist and critic of Israel with a hefty online following, tweeted: “LAPD delegation heads to Israel to learn lessons in control, domination and exclusion.” Another Twitter user, @JustBadre, tweeted asking Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: “why is #lapd in Israel on taxpayer $? Should #lapd be training with forces that have human rights violations?”

As of press time, LAPD media relations had not responded to a request for the total cost of the trip and the source of the funds. However, a previous trip to Israel by four members of the LAPD bomb squad reportedly cost $18,000.

The LAPD-Israel bond was in large part fused by former LAPD Chief William Bratton, who made official trips to Israel to learn about the country’s advanced counter-terrorism tactics during his chiefdom from 2002 to 2009. At a town hall meeting in Los Angeles near the end of his term, Bratton said of Israeli intelligence experts: “They are our allies. They are some of the best at what they do in the world, and that close relationship has been one of growing strength and importance.”

The most recent visit was organized by Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commander of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, and led by Horace Frank, commander of the LAPD Information Technology (IT) Bureau. “We had this grant funding that was available for us to look at emergency technologies and best practices,” Frank explained to the Journal while in Israel. “Normally we do send people here [to Israel], but not at that level. So this was an opportunity to really bring some high-level command decision makers to take a look at what’s going on.”

Frank was joined by seven of his fellow command staff at the Big Data Intelligence Conference hosted by i-HLS in the beach town of Herzliya, Israel, on Feb. 6.

“On behalf of my chief of police, Chief Charlie Beck, and the 13,000-plus sworn and non-sworn members of the Los Angeles Police Department, a very heartfelt thanks to all of you for having me here,” Frank said in an opening statement for the conference, which brought together some of Israel’s — and the world’s — top cyber security and intelligence experts.

The LAPD’s head IT guy continued: “Now let’s be honest … This whole idea of best practices is just a euphemism for: We’re here to steal some of your great ideas. And a lot of great ideas and technology, indeed, you do have here in Israel. I would hope that you do not view this as a negative, because in this day and age of globalization, our needs are truly similar. In fact, we are much more alike than dis-alike. As civilized nations, we are all confronted with, in many cases, the same enemy: The ever-growing threat of terrorism and other major criminal elements.”
Eight members of the LAPD command staff, pictured with their tour guides, attended the “Big Data Intelligence” conference at the Israel Air Force Center on Feb. 6. Photo by Simone Wilson

At the conference’s coffee break, Frank and a few of his colleagues spoke to the Journal about the highlights of their nine-day tour.

Frank said he was especially impressed by what he saw while visiting Israeli companies Nice Systems (as tweeted by Perez) and Verint, one of the companies whose services the National Security Administration (NSA) reportedly used in the infamous United States wiretapping scandal. Both companies already count the LAPD as a client. But, Frank said, “we’re looking at some of their additional solutions … They have a lot of new technologies that we are very much interested in.”

Nice System’s  president of security, Yaron Tchwella, spoke at the conference about the company’s ability to help government agencies capture and store the billions of calls, emails, messages and social media posts that their populations generate each day, then analyze it in real time to detect potential threats. Tchwella projected an image of Albert Einstein onto the overhead, explaining that Einstein’s dream was to store data dynamically, so that it mimics the capabilities of the human brain — tying incoming information to the vast amounts already stored, thus recontextualizing the big picture. 

For example, Tchwella said, “the connection between IDF [Israel Defense Forces] databases provides us with a grasp on reality, and allows for the connectivity between things that change between time, geography … and semantics. This is what we do every day in our brains.” 

Perez said he hoped the LAPD, too, would eventually be able to “use technology to incorporate all the systems that we have. That’s the wave of the future. We’re definitely looking at the ability to get that information out to the officers on the beat with a handheld. Something happens, and you’re looking at the handheld — almost like ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ — here’s a picture of the guy you’re looking for.”

LAPD watchdog Hamid Khan expressed concern, however, that emerging technologies such as Nice’s would give new legs to questionable LAPD policies.

“For us, it’s not only about the type of technology, but how this technology further enhances the existing capacity of any of these agencies to gather more information,” Khan said.

Khan, 53, a Pakistani native and former commercial airline pilot, formed the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition two years ago. The coalition has since been campaigning against a series of federal “fusion centers” created by the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 — including one in the Los Angeles. area utilized by the LAPD. The centers allow federal, state and local agencies to share information about civilians, in hopes of detecting potential terrorists.

Also in Khan’s crosshairs is Special Order 1, an LAPD policy that allows officers to document any otherwise lawful activity that they, or other members of the community, deem suspicious. (Including, for example, the photographing of certain government sites.) And new LAPD intel collection methods or surveillance drones, said Khan, would only be “adding more to their toolbox of being highly militarized in counterinsurgency forces” against protesters and movements such as Occupy. “Yet it is wrapped in this whole language of community policing.”

Two separate L.A. Weekly investigations in 2012 found that the LAPD uses expensive StingRay devices, which can locate cellphones (and their users) by acting like cellphone towers, and license-plate recognition cameras that track millions of drivers. Although both devices technically require a warrant to be used in a police investigation, there is little way to know whether police are always complying with the rules.

Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, said the coupling of spy technology with watered-down police guidelines “represents a step backward to the [1970s-era] collection of information about individuals and their whereabouts without reasonable suspicion that they’re involved in criminal activities.”

And that, he said, “is very troubling.”

Surveillance drones manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Sky Sapience were also hot items on the LAPD tour. Both Frank and Perez lit up when talking about the HoverMast, a new tethered drone from Sky Sapience that was just released to the IDF late last year.

“There are several things on the wish list, but we did like Sky Sapience — that was incredible,” Perez said. “For me personally, just for my command, which is five stations, and all the special events that I have, crowd control and being able to see everything would be some technology that is needed immediately.”

However, Frank added, the HoverMast “has its challenges: from a political standpoint, convincing our political leaders, and from a community standpoint, convincing the community that it’s not Big Brother watching over you.”

Trucks with the HoverMast drone. Photo courtesy Sky Sapience

A spokeswoman for Sky Sapience said the HoverMast can intercept wireless communications, and its cameras are capable of facial recognition. A spokeswoman for IAI said that while showing LAPD officers their drones, the company “wanted to emphasize the fact that drones can be very helpful in giving intelligence in urban scenarios… you need it now, you need it quick, you need to see what’s inside a window, and what’s behind this building.”

Nimrod Kozlovski, co-founder of Tel Aviv University’s cyber security program and a leading expert in the industry, argued that the Fourth Amendment would limit police in the United States from using Israeli technology to spy without a warrant. “But if you relax these standards or create too many exemptions,” he said, “there is certainly a risk that [civilians] will be subject to ongoing monitoring and interception by law enforcement agencies, which is certainly not the proper balance between government and individual.”

Many of the companies attracting LAPD interest have one thing in common: They were formed by veterans of the IDF’s elite, top-secret 8200 Unit, better known as Israel’s version of the NSA. 

“This notion that you collect mass amounts of intelligence in order to sort and analyze it has been known and expected in Israel for years,” Kozlovski said. “It wasn’t known and well-taught in the U.S. that secret services don’t operate on probable cause, so this mass collection took them by surprise. We [Israelis] tend to give more permission to counter-terror operations to use a technology that will be able to predict a potential terrorist. It’s more socially acceptable.”

Perez emphasized that as a local police agency, the LAPD has much tighter legal constraints than federal agencies to adhere to when adopting army-born surveillance and “big data” technologies. 

But critics worry that as federal and local agencies continue to collaborate, and constitutional law races to catch up with high-tech security solutions, lines will blur. “Now people are starting to realize, now that the NSA piece is out there, that this is very local, this is everyday 24/7 policing … not a science fiction movie,” Khan said.

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