Operation Legend Is Bringing Surveillance Tech to Cities

September 14, 2020

Using federal grants, cities are contracting with companies that hack smartphones and detect gunshots.

In August, 40 federal agents arrived in Memphis. Some were already on the ground by the time U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant announced the onset of Operation Legend and the city became, along with St. Louis, the seventh to be targeted by the Justice Department’s heavy-handed initiative to reduce violent crime. Many of the agents are on temporary assignment, working in collaboration with police; nearly half will relocate by November. But they will leave behind a city flush with grant money for local police — and heightened surveillance capabilities.

In Memphis, organizers have long battled police surveillance. The fight came to a head in 2017, when a lawsuit against the city of Memphis revealed years of close surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and union organizers. “We knew we were being watched and monitored and surveilled,” said Hunter Demster, an activist who was tracked on social media by MPD. The suit was successful, and in 2018, a federal judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee policing in the city. Now, activists there say that Operation Legend is a serious blow.

Operation Legend and its December precursor, Operation Relentless Pursuit, are both funding surveillance technology in cities across the country. Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, which lines cities with sensors to detect gunfire, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy. Other more opaque grants from the Justice Department, like a $1.4 million grant to Shelby County, which surrounds Memphis, in April and a $1 million grant in July to the city of Cleveland, are to be used in part for “technological solutions” or “support” for investigations.

Awash in these federal funds, cities have doubled down on their surveillance investments, even as they face general budget shortfalls in the tens of millions. On August 4, two days before Operation Legend was formally announced in the city, Memphis signed a new contract with Cellebrite, an Israeli forensics manufacturer popular with law enforcement, whose products can hack and extract data from smartphones. The estimated $65,000 contract would double previous annual spending on the technology, per city procurement records. The Memphis police declined an interview request for this story and did not respond to several additional inquiries about the purchases.

Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy.

On August 12, the city of Detroit — another of the nine cities targeted by Operation Legend — also placed a $100,000 order with Cellebrite to acquire the company’s “premium” software package and, two weeks later, renewed an older Cellebrite license for another $22,000 — more than tripling 2018 and 2019 expenditures.

Chicago, meanwhile, announced on August 14 that it would employ “enhanced” technology for “around-the-clock” monitoring of social media to identify looters. One hundred federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were sent to Chicago through Operation Legend in late July. Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot at first assumed a hostile attitude toward the initiative, in August she also announced a new task force on looting in partnership with the FBI. “This Task Force is already reviewing video camera footage and other evidence to identify perpetrators and develop strong cases against them,” she wrote.

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