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The LAPD has purchased controversial mass surveillance software that allows police to track individuals using geolocation data. The company that provides the software, called WebLoc, is Cobwebs Technologies. The Israeli company was founded by three IDF veterans in 2015 and has previously sold contracts to the IRS and the Texas State Police. Each contract costs around $200,000 per year.
The LAPD's contract with Cobwebs Technology was revealed in a report from Knock LA, which obtained documents via freedom of information requests. According to the outlet, the LAPD contracted with the Israeli firm in October 2022 and plans to use its technology for a full year before auditing its use and compiling a report. Cobwebs’ system has two main platforms. The first is Tangles, which the company previously described in a now-deleted press release as a web intelligence platform that allows users to search the open web, social media, dark web, and deep web. Tangles can be AI-enabled with “image recognition, face recognition, OCR [optical character recognition] capabilities, NLP [natural language processing] and more,” the press release stated. The second is WebLoc, which another now-deleted webpage on Cobwebs’ site described as a location intelligence system. WebLoc “provides access to vast amounts of location-based data in any specified geographic location.” This allows users—law enforcement, in the case of the Texas State Police or the LAPD—to track individuals’ geolocation data. WebLoc offers “deep analysis of geofences and threat actors, location history and detailed data discovery,” as well as “live data updates” and “real-time alerts” about changes in an individual’s location.
According to Cobwebs' website copy, WebLoc “compiles and enriches different types of large datasets of location-based data points, to be used for deep geolocation analysis. The information is displayed “on a simple and map-centric interface which allows users to conduct a map-based and visual investigation, integrated with our industry-leading web intelligence solution.”Previous reporting has indicated that WebLoc’s vast troves of information were likely obtained from mobile data brokers, companies that gather information on an individual’s online footprint to be sold to businesses, often for advertising purposes. The use of information from data brokers has allowed law enforcement to bypass the requirement to obtain a warrant. The Intercept reported that the Texas State Police’s contract with Cobwebs referenced an individual’s “ad ID,” the string of text used to track all online activity of a particular mobile device, as a main source of information. Knock LA reported that a U.S. Navy bid request for WebLoc listed a person's device type, gender, age, interests, geolocated IP address, and mobile advertising IDs as available information to “enhance target identification and tracking.”
WebLoc and Tangles are no longer described anywhere on Cobwebs’ site, nor is there any public information about them listed on the LAPD website. Cobwebs has since joined data analysis firm Penlink, which also does not list information about WebLoc on its site. The Brennan Center for Justice published a series of communications between the LAPD and Cobwebs dated between 2019 and 2020, including a quote for the company’s WEBINT Gold program, which includes both Tangles and WebLoc functionality. The communications reference a document supposedly containing more information about WebLoc, but this document was not made publicly available. The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, and sets warrant requirements for law enforcement. However, multiple court cases have proposed an exception to these requirements with regards to foreign surveillance and national security. The communications published by the Brennan Center suggest that the LAPD initially could not afford the subscription price, but that it planned to obtain the necessary funding through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to increasing urban security. The LAPD’s public information office told Motherboard in an emailed statement, “The Los Angeles Police Department utilizes the Cobwebs Technologies platform to consolidate open-source, publicly available information and commercially available anonymized data in relation to criminal investigations. These investigations include serious felony crimes (i.e., murders, robberies, etc.), along with threats to public safety (i.e., mass shootings) and critical infrastructure.” “Cobwebs Technologies greatly aids the LAPD in these investigations and acts as a force multiplier in the processing of this pertinent and lawfully obtained data,” the LAPD statement continued. “This technology is extremely limited in its deployment and usage. The LAPD has implemented an oversight, audit and review process with its usage of the Cobwebs Technologies platform.”Cobwebs and PenLink did not respond to requests for comment. Update: This article has been updated with comment from the LAPD.