Apr 17, 2024 - News

Polk County Sheriff launches internet surveillance

Illustration of keyboard in an evidence bag.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A system that can identify aliases and collect years of personal data from hundreds of online sources is now being used by the Polk County Sheriff's Department.

Why it matters: ShadowDragon surveillance software is intended to help investigate crimes like human trafficking.

  • But the sweeping collection of data is ripe for government abuse, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa tells Axios.

State of play: The Wyoming-based company says its software can in minutes map out online identities and associations or correlations among people using publicly available information online, including social media, chat rooms and dating platforms.

  • The system doesn't access private data, but allows users to perform searches and collect data from platforms like gaming discussion forums.
  • It's made available to vetted law enforcement, public agencies and corporate organizations that provide "protection to their communities," according to ShadowDragon's site.

Zoom in: Operation Underground Railroad — a California-based anti-sex trafficking organization — donated $4,000 to pay for Polk's first-year of software expenses.

  • Supervisors approved a service agreement to use the software March 26.
  • The system is already in use and can help with crimes beyond human trafficking, Capt. Ryan Evans told Axios last week.

What they're saying: ShadowDragon's exhaustive information sweep raises privacy and due process concerns, Pete McRoberts, ACLU of Iowa's policy director, tells Axios.

  • Similar concerns surfaced recently in Iowa's student sports betting probe, where investigators did not obtain warrants before searching the on-campus use of betting apps, McRoberts notes.

The other side: ShadowDragon officials declined Axios' request for an interview, directing questions about privacy to its online policy site.

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