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There's little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police
In 2007, as it pushed to build a state-of-the-art surveillance facility, the Los Angeles Police Department cast an acquisitive eye on software being developed by Palantir, a startup funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital arm.
Originally designed for spy agencies, Palantir's technology allowed users to track individuals with unprecedented reach, connecting information from conventional sources like crime reports with more controversial data gathered by surveillance cameras and license plate readers that automatically, and indiscriminately, photographed passing cars.
The LAPD could have used a small portion of its multibillion-dollar annual budget to purchase the software, but that would have meant going through a year-long process requiring public meetings, approval from the City Council, and, in some cases, competitive bidding.
There was a quicker, quieter way to get the software: as a gift from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private charity. In November 2007, at the behest of then Police Chief William Bratton, the foundation approached Target Corp., which contributed $200,000 to buy the software, said the foundation's executive director, Cecilia Glassman, in an interview. Then the foundation donated it to the police department.
Across the nation, private foundations are increasingly being tapped to provide police with technology and weaponry that -- were it purchased with public money -- would come under far closer scrutiny.
In Los Angeles, foundation money has been used to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of license plate readers, which were the subject of a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the region's law enforcement agencies by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (A judge rejected the groups' claims earlier this year.)
Private funds also have been used to upgrade "Stingray" devices, which have triggered debate in numerous jurisdictions because they vacuum up records of cellphone metadata, calls, text messages and data transfers over a half-mile radius.
New York and Los Angeles have the nation's oldest and most generous police foundations, each providing their city police departments with grants totaling about $3 million a year. But similar groups have sprouted up in dozens of jurisdictions, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Oakland, California. In Atlanta, the police foundation has bankrolled the surveillance cameras that now blanket the city, as well as the center where police officers monitor live video feeds.
Proponents of these private fundraising efforts say they have become indispensable in an era of tightening budgets, helping police to acquire the ever-more sophisticated tools needed to combat modern crime.
"There's very little discretionary money for the department," said Steve Soboroff, a businessman who is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD's policies and operations. "A grant application to the foundation cuts all the red tape, or almost all of the red tape."
But critics say police foundations operate with little transparency or oversight and can be a way for wealthy donors and corporations to influence law enforcement agencies' priorities.
It's not uncommon for the same companies to be donors to the same police foundations that purchase their products for local police departments. Or for those companies also to be contractors for the same police agencies to which their products are being donated.
"No one really knows what's going on," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good government group in New York. "The public needs to know that these contributions are being made voluntarily and have no bearing on contracting decisions."
Palantir, the recipient of the Los Angeles Police Foundation's largesse in 2008, donated $10,000 to become a three-star sponsor of the group's annual "Above and Beyond" awards ceremony in 2013 and has made similar-sized gifts to the New York police foundation.
The privately held Palo Alto firm, which had estimated revenues of $250 million in 2011 and is preparing to go public, also has won millions of dollars of contracts from the Los Angeles and New York police departments over the last three years.
Palantir officials did not respond to questions about its relationships with police departments and the foundations linked to them. The New York City Police Foundation did not answer questions about Palantir's donations, or its technology gifts to the NYPD.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she saw danger in the growing web of ties between police departments, foundations and private donors.
"We run the risk of policy that is in the service of moneyed interests," she said.
Ignore the Flipkart bloomer. Get smart and save money by using the internet marketplace. Tips from personal experience
The internet is emerging as THE marketplace of the future. Recently, we saw the traditional brick and mortar shopkeepers moaning about the big ‘sale’ on Flipkart and Snapdeal. As I write this, Amazon's mega Diwali sale is yet to reveal its full impact. Yes, many buyers had a poor experience on buying online, but these will only make the services better and not drive people away from the internet.
In terms of sheer convenience and variety of choice, there is nothing like internet. One of the biggest changes most of us have experienced is the way we buy railway tickets. Complaints about ‘tatkal’ notwithstanding, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp (IRCTC) have done a phenomenal job. Recollect what we used to do before the internet and the benefits are hard to deny. The only fly in the ointment, as far as I am concerned, is the unwarranted and unreasonable ‘surcharge’ that we are forced to cough up for booking rail tickets online. Logically, the Railways save on manpower and physical infrastructure costs when people buy online and they should have been offering a discount compared to the prices at ticket windows. Their monopoly has seemingly made them arrogant and extortive.
The internet is getting rid of intermediation in a rapid manner. It also helps producers reach corners of the world they would never otherwise have reached (Read the classic book on this titled “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson).
Ten years from now, first time air travellers would not even know of something called a ‘travel agent’. In stock markets like ours, jobbers have vanished. Today, the brick and mortar stores have less and less reason to exist. Alibaba, the Chinese online mega-seller is clocking close to a billion dollars in online sales EVERY DAY! Assuming that our economy is around one ninth of China, a company like Alibaba can easily do sales of around $150 million (over Rs900 crore) each day in India.
Given India’s diversity and income disparity, I do not expect the sudden demise of the physical shop. However, as people move up the prosperity curve, there will be a shift to the internet, but I see both co-existing in the long run.
A news report said that Amazon is setting up a brick and mortar shop in the US. I fail to see the logic, unless it is a display point for some items.
Today, everything from services (insurance, banking, travel, hotel bookings, movie tickets, rail tickets) to goods (from books to electronic items) are available online. The demographic change also is such that fewer people find time to go out and compare products and prices in different shops or malls. The internet allows me to compare products at peace. When I do go to physical shops selling durable products, I find them to be less than transparent.
In most shops, prices are not displayed and in a typical white goods shop, the salesman will whip out an “MRP” list and then ‘work out’ a special discount for you. And you feel nice about it. The Internet has changed all that. Today, I do my homework on the internet before even going to an old-fashioned shop.
I have been using online extensively and would like to share the following tips for taking advantage of the ecommerce boom.
1. Most ‘sales’ like the Flipkart, Snapdeal or Amazon sales, are token ones (a small quantity on offer at deep discounts) and are designed primarily to keep you on the website and get you to click ‘buy’ on something or the other. A ‘discounted’ price may not really be discounted and you could even end up paying a premium. For instance, on the day Flipkart made their big splash, there were enough of items being available at lower prices at physical stores as well as other internet marketplaces. So do not trust one electronic marketplace ever. Keep checking constantly at various sites. There are also some aggregators, which provide comparisons of prices online.
2. Like their offline counterparts, Internet marketplaces often have dubious pricing or ‘hidden’ add-ons. For example, on many travel websites, they sell ‘travel insurance’. By default, they include the charges for this and are less than honest in giving you a choice in the matter. Without legally compelling you to buy it, they try and sneak it past you. Similarly, after you have chosen and done everything, you will find a ‘convenience fee’ slapped on to the ticket. The fares displayed usually tend to exclude this. Again, the best thing to do is to use the power of the internet and compare prices across websites. In case of airlines, the airline sites sell tickets directly too and often without any added convenience fees.
3. It is not that all is rosy when you buy online. To me, where I buy from, becomes important. I like sites, which are known to do background checks on the sellers/ buyers they put up. Some sites offer some products with their ‘assurance’ too. I dislike dealing with unknown or small-time websites since they could be offering fakes or seconds or simply deliver something different.
4. The common grouse against internet marketplaces is that the redress seems tough. When you buy from a physical shop and have a problem, you can fight, argue and get your money back. On an online platform, the seller or manufacturer of the product is far removed and you are transferred from one call centre to another. Here, we need to rely on the reputation of the website and have an action plan to create enough nuisances for them in case of a problem, so that they will provide quick redress.
5. The important thing while buying online is to keep ‘records’. It would mean capturing screenshots of orders, acceptances, money transfers etc. We do not have a cash memo or an invoice to come to our rescue in case of a problem. Usually all orders are recorded by e-mail and it is important to keep these e-mails for redressal.
6. There is also the problem of the subsequent flood of spam. You may consider maintaining a separate mail ID for this purpose. The retailers have scant respect for privacy and you will find that if you shop for something, Google or someone would have tracked you and this information is then liable to be used by spammers. When exploring any market place, it is best to first log out of all your identities, clear the cache and use a high privacy browser option (incognito, as the Google Chrome browser calls it). There are advanced softwares that could help you mask your IP address as well.
7. The internet has made a huge difference in not just buying but also selling items. To share a personal experience, I wanted to change my car, so I approached several of old school dealers and their quotes ranged between Rs4.50 lakh and Rs5.25 lakh. I put up an ad on OLX and indicated a selling price of Rs6.50 lakh (I checked out online selling prices for cars of a similar profile). On the SAME DAY, I closed the deal at nearly Rs6 lakh. No brokerage was paid.
In buying and selling on the internet, however, the important thing for a user is to not forget the principle of ‘CAVEAT EMPTOR.’
As a consumer, it is undeniable that the convenience of buying from the living room is here to stay and grow. Sooner the producers and other players recognise this and develop active strategies to address this segment, the better for their survival.