Policeware: Fascinating Real Journalists Again

June 27, 2020

Imagine writing about policeware — software and specialized services tailored to the needs of enforcement authorities — this way.

You learn about a quinoa farmer in rural Virginia. You look into the farmer’s activities and find that the farmer sells produce to locals heading toward North Carolina. You add flavor to your story the way a cook in Lima converts quinoa into a gourmet treat for travel weary tourists. The farmer is an interesting person. The farmer is struggling to survive. The farmer labels the quinoa as “world’s best” and “super healthy.” The farmer becomes famous because he tells you, “I sell more quinoa despite the local regulations and the Food Lion supermarket.” The problem is that the story’s author is unaware of Archer Daniels Midlands, an outfit with an interest in quinoa.

The story is a human interest write up particularized to a single quinoa farmer in a state known for a mall, traffic jams, and government contractors. Micro story gives the impression that Virginia is a great place for quinoa. Accurate? A reflection of the business environment? A clear reflection of local ordinances?


I thought about the difference between a quinoa farmer’s story and a general lack of awareness about Archer Daniel Midlands when I read “Firm That Tracked Protesters Targeted Evangelicals During 2016 Election.” The outfit providing data may have more in common with the hypothetical quinoa story that meets the eye. Coverage of the policeware or intelware market sector invites micro examples used to support large scale generalizations about the use of data from mobile phones or open source information like public posts on a social media site.

Furthermore, small companies like the one described in Vice Motherboard article exist in every business sector. Focusing on a single firm — whether a quinoa farmer or a commercial data provider — may not provide a representative description of the market.

News flash: Data are available to companies, government agencies, and not for profit organizations from hundreds of companies. Some of these are tiny like Mobilewalla. Others are beefy; for example, Oracle BlueKai. Still others occupy a middle ground like Dataminr. Others are loosely affiliated with other countries’ government entities; possibly Innity.

The fixation on policeware appears to be a desire on the part of “real” journalists to tell mobile phone users that the essential device is gathering data about the user.

News flash: Mobile devices which seek cell towers and WiFi connections emit data as part of their normal functioning. Individuals who use mobile devices to look at ads on ManyVids, surf the Dark Web from a mobile device, and use the gizmos to buy contraband and pay with Bitcoin are skywriting. Big messages are available to those with access to different sets of data.

Some of the data flows into the stellar giants of the online world; for instance, Facebook and Google. Other data gathers in the telcos. Quite useful data floods from online mobile game enthusiasts. Granny in the retirement home happily provides companies like Amazon with a flow of information about what’s hot from her quite particular point of view.

My thought is that chasing quinoa farmer stories is a new and exciting angle for some “real” journalists. But is there a different story to be researched, understood, and communicated.

“Real” journalists might begin by asking and answering with facts, not anecdotes, these questions:

What organizations are the equivalent of the agribusiness giants just in the commercial database sector? How are these data gathered, verified, and made available? What people, companies, and organizations license these data? Why does a commercial database business exist? When did data morph into mechanism for dealing with certain types of events? How many government agencies integrate these types of data into their “feet on the street” activities? What’s the upside to these data and their use? What are the downsides to these data and their use?

The stories about the quinoa farmer are okay. Moving beyond the anecdote to the foundation of commercial data licensing is more meaningful and more interesting.

The problem may be that moving beyond the quinoa approach takes work, time, and understanding. Hey, “real” journalists have to log into Slack and then jump on a Zoom call. This “go beyond quinoa” is just too much like “real work.”

That’s a problem I assert for individuals uninterested in what happened when trans-Atlantic telegraph messages began to flow. Why not look into that type of history?

Stephen E Arnold, June 27, 2020


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