Intrado Not to Intrude in Bellingham

The city council “persuades” the city administration to withdraw a request for an intrusive police threat warning system

The city council “persuades” the city administration to withdraw a request for an intrusive police threat warning system

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Last night the Bellingham City Council voted to ask the chief of police and the mayor to withdraw a grant request to the Department of Justice for the acquisition of the Intrado-Beware threat warning system. The administration agreed to abide by the council’s request and use the grant funding for another purpose within the police department. The decision by the council came at the end of a second hearing during which over a dozen citizens strongly unleashed their views.  My report on the first hearing, held on 23 Jun 2014 can be read here.  You can also view the video of citizen comments here (scroll to 40.00 on the video counter).

Yesterday’s hearing was scheduled after the council meeting two weeks ago at which the police department (no department representatives were present) provided an agenda bill for information only. Their plan was to ask the Department of Justice for a grant in the amount of $25,000 to fund the Intrado-Beware threat warning system. The grant also included $15,000 for purchase of additional ballistic plates to be added to body armor for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.  The body armor purchase was not contested although it is unclear if that request will go forward in that the Bellingham Police Department was the initiating agency.  

As with the first hearing, the council received some sharp and often colorful blowback during the comment period.  Although the police couched the justification for Intrado in terms of officer and community safety, most of the comments were about the invasive nature of the software and the implications for privacy.  Several noted that the Supreme Court recently ruled that the police cannot search a cell phone without first obtaining a search warrant.  The Intrado system with its allegedly sweeping ability to gather private information from many open and unidentified commercial sources appeared to serve as a possible workaround to the cell phone search restriction.

Those commenting also had grave reservations over the implications of a private company engaging in what is essentially police work.  The algorithms its software uses for arriving at threat assessments is proprietary.  No studies appear to be available that attest to the overall utility of the system although the police department provided some anecdotal evidence of the system’s assistance during several incidents.  Again, there were no reports of incidents where the police may have been misled by the software.  The lack of information and the secrecy around the product served to give the council pause.  

Many people complimented our police force for generally being a good one.  They also opined that the acquisition of this threat warning system would irrevocably harm any trust the public now has with the police.   Intrado itself came in for much criticism as it appears that the Intrado-Beware is a recent, notably unproven extension to its rather generalized service across the U.S. in providing 911 services to communities.  [Note: Intrado, along with Century Link, was involved in the April 911 outage in Washington state during which 4,500 emergency calls went unanswered.]

The council was also concerned about the fact that the initial documentation for information during the 23 June council meeting did not reveal that the grant only covered the first year of a five-year agreement.  The agreement evidently called for an additional $20,000 per year for service, thus obligating the city for $80,000.   The police chief and the city attorney were left to respond to the council’s questions while the mayor provided little input to the discussion.  She had previously (on 23 June) assured the council that once the police were present during the second hearing to answer questions, the rationale for the Intrado system would be convincing.   It did not work out that way.

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Thelma Follett

Jul 08, 2014

Thank you, Dick, for your continued excellent reporting here on Northwest Citizen. You have well-covered last night’s proceedings.  I came away very impressed with the way the city council approached this particular problem before them and I was also gratified that Police Chief Cook was gracious in accepting the will of the city council.
I also want to thank Northwest citizen for alerting me to the matter on June 23.  By mere happenstance I clicked onto the site and found the “heads up” by Tip Johnson citing Wendy Harris’ concerns about the JAG grant allowing for intrusive surveillance software.  Public awareness of this grave issue, about to be decided, hung by the merest thread. There is something wrong here; and, as we all know, it is partly due to the Herald which regularly shirks its responsibility to inform the populace about what might concern them most in favor of pandering to big business. 
I think there are two things we should take away from last night.  One is that we made history here in Bellingham when the Intrado/GuideSTAR Technologies grant for intrusive whole-sale data mining of individual citizens’ activities was rejected.  It was made clear last night that Bellingham was offered this Intrado “golden opportunity” because we citizens were in essence seen as the guinea pigs for the program.  We need to let the rest of the country know that here in Bellingham we said a resounding “No!”  This will help other cities when they are approached - which they are sure to be.
The second thing we need to note is that surveillance will go forward without our knowledge or consent in one form or another.  For example, The FBI is about to launch their all-out iris, facial, voice data sharing with local governments (“EFF Sues FBI For Access to Facial-Recognition Records,” June 26, 2013, The U. K. is on the verge of passing an emergency law that would allow tracking the public’s phone calls, text messages, and internet use. (“UK Moves to Legalize Mass Surveillance New bill would reinstate controversial law struck down for invading privacy of citizens,” July 8, 2014, Common Dreams online).  Expect something like that here with an establishment press to mollify the left and the right if they get restive.
We MUST be ever vigilant.

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