This is Behind the Blog, where we share our behind-the-scenes thoughts about how a few of our top stories of the week came together. This week, we discuss why FOIA about surveillance is so important, more misinfo around Israel-Palestine, adblockers, and a controversial livestream.
JOSEPH: I love a good FOIA project. Sometimes, these can be laser-focused on obtaining a specific contract, from a specific agency, which you know was signed at a particular time. For other projects, instead of a laser you go for a wide spread. That’s what I did for the article on Fusus.
Earlier this year, I had seen a handful of local media reports about the company. A source also mentioned the company to me one time after they attended a law enforcement and industry conference. What was interesting to me was that, in my eyes, Fusus qualitatively changed what a security camera even means. Usually, if you walk past a camera you may think to yourself, oh, that business has a record of me being here at this time. Really not an issue in most cases. You then may walk across another camera owned by another business, then another by a government, and perhaps a doorbell camera or two down a residential street. Usually these are all siloed, requiring law enforcement to put in work to get data from each. If the reason for doing so isn’t all that important, maybe law enforcement won’t bother.
Fusus changes that. It can make all of that camera footage, and sometimes the live feed, directly accessible to police at once. It shatters those silos. Law enforcement seems to think that is a great thing—I can see why, it would almost certainly speed up investigations. Privacy campaigners are unclear on how long data is kept, and what use cases are allowed—also valid questions. Whatever side you fall on, or somewhere inbetween like me, you can’t deny that Fusus is changing not just the relationship between the cameras, but our relationship to them as well.
So to find out more I did what I often do: filed a metric-fuck-ton (technical term) of public records requests. Sometimes I will do this with dozens or even over a hundred law enforcement agencies. The goal is a scattershot: fire really wide and see what comes back. After doing this for years, you tend to learn which agencies are responsive and which are not. Don’t bother with the FBI, it will be literal years, sometimes most of a decade, to get a response. Be more strategic.
Then I started to get material back. Sometimes it was just a quote that Fusus provided the agency. Or a few emails showing interest from a police department. Then, I got a couple of good hauls, one of those being from Starkville Police Department, which I decided to make the focus of the piece. Starkville PD didn’t respond to my multiple requests to even get on the phone and chat about how the system has been successful for them. I’m not writing a story with a particular conclusion in mind. If they think it’s good for them, I want to hear it! But without them engaging, I, by luck honestly, found they had spoken on the Fusus podcast, so I could refer to their comments from that. Fusus also didn’t respond, but considering I had a bunch of emails and documents, I certainly had enough to fairly characterize their position, I think.