By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer– Several Ridgecrest citizens attended August’s first City Council meeting to make known their concerns about the data-gathering capability of Placer.ai. A representative gave a presentation and fielded questions. Comments followed. The council’s reactions were mixed, but all the attending audience members were concerned about surveillance and privacy.
Chris Duval gave the presentation. His goal was to inform his audience who the company is, how they get their data, how they can benefit cities, and their privacy practices.
Placer is a “location analytics company” that leverages mobile locations to provide the prescriber with “market intelligence.” They anonymously “harness” the data from a population’s cell phones. The company focuses on “retail recruitment,” and with “event analysis,” it is a “really powerful” tool. It tells the user “how many people came to an event, where they were before and after, and even more.” Then, city leaders have the ability to “recruit specific retailers” to their town. In order to gather cell phone data, the owner needs to allow apps to “share locations.” So, “it’s actually double authentication.” Knowing locations is essential to the information Placer gathers, but none of the thousands of partner apps they use are disclosed.
Duval assured they “never touch personal information.” He said, “We don’t collect anything like phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or names of the device.” He said they “won’t be able to tell [the user] whose device it is.” Their data sets are all about demographics and psychographics. Eight different devices can be monitored simultaneously to derive “foot traffic data” based off the number of devices they see “under the geofence.” Then, they “extrapolate it to give an estimate number of unique visitors and number of visits.” Placer’s service would cost Ridgecrest $19,000 per year.
During comments, Councilman Scott Hayman was concerned about privacy. He was told cell phones are “scrubbed by the apps” for personal identification. But unless people turn off all location data, they will not be aware their phones are tracked by Placer. In other words, people in a geofenced area, such as February’s “Night on Balsam,” were not aware Placer gathered their information.
Solomon Rajaratnam had three concerns. He asked if half the people’s locations were turned off, would Placer’s data be accurate? He was told they work similar to “the way Nielsen works to tell you 70 million people watch the Super Bowl.” His second concern was the e-commerce trend. He estimated the current 20 percent of internet shopping will rise to “90 percent by 2050.” City Manager Ron Strand interjected by saying, “people still want experiences” by shopping in a real store. Rajaratnam’s third concern was bringing in competition to a market with stores already struggling. He said Ridgecrest’s population cannot handle competing stores. He is “trying to understand how [Placer will] help the community develop our economy.”
Throughout the meeting, Strand fought for Placer. He said people in Ridgecrest want stores like Panera, Ross, and Burlington, and he believes the information gathered from it will arm him to approach these stores. “We have to be able to sell ourselves. They don’t care that we’re a patriotic community making high income.” Strand wants proof people from Bishop, Kernville, Trona, and Cal City come to shop in Ridgecrest, and he believes Placer’s technology can arm him with convincing intelligence.
When the public spoke, a question arose about Placer’s founder and CEO Noem Ben-Zvi. Mike Neel asked, “Is it or is it not true that your founder was a former Mossad agent?” The Placer representative refused to answer and told Neel he was “asking a personal question about one of our employees of the company.” He said he was not “prepared to discuss” this information “in a meeting like this” and referred him to the “HR department.”
Mike Sinnott called the presentation a “dog and pony show” and stated that Ridgecrest should be concerned about tracking companies collecting the public’s data. He referenced a recently declassified report from the Director of National Intelligence which asks for an investigation and control over “commercially available information” that can be used to “cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety.”
Several audience members mentioned Ridgecrest’s proximity to the naval base and its security. One woman remembered when the Department of Defense was concerned with other tracking devices base employees might use, such as Apple watches. She was told Placer “excludes military installations, churches, and schools from data collection.” It “stops at those borders and…we would not have any origin data from folks on a military facility.”
But, having lived many years in this area, Stan Ratjora asked, “Will our military contractors also be left off the database?” His concern was that since most live in town, many military contractors and their offices will be tracked like everyone else. Placer’s answer was, “no particular individual’s PII, or ‘personally identifiable information’ is observed.” They only track the movement, the latitude and longitude of the phone. “So we don’t know whose phone it is.”
However, Jessica Weston’s question about her out-of-town area code number “popping up as a visitor,” opened up the proverbial Pandora’s box. She was told “no, it is about the latitude and longitude…where the device rests at night.” She learned that Placer’s artificial intelligence determines her phone’s “origin” by where it “sleeps” for three weeks.
That statement was bothersome to Hayman, who reasoned that through easily available county records, anyone can find out who lives at that address. “They know where my phone rests. I drive myself and my phone…to work.” He compared this to hunting for prey. “Somebody can monitor your habits; they can track and learn many things about you.” He said, “I’m sure there’s a whole lot more they understand about you than they’re letting on in this presentation.” He said it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out phones’ identities. “We can identify who went where. Where they came from and where they are now.” Thinking as a military strategist, “that’s good information to know.”
Another issue was brought up by former council member, Tom Wiknich. From the standpoint of a business owner, he asked if theoretically, a user of Placer could geofence his business to know how many people come and go. He said the city already has a lot of private information about his business, such as how much he pays in taxes. But his concern is that with this technology, competitors could monitor information about how his company is doing. “What are the controls going to be?”
A young man, Joseph Martin, asked, “How accurate are your reviews?” In other words, “Will it provide growth to the economy?” He referred to apps like Yelp where people can find out, for instance, “Is this food crappy?” Placer told him if Ridgecrest wants “insight about who’s going where, how often, how long they stay, where do they come from, and where else do they go,” then Placer can give them that information.
Lisa Lewis wanted some clarification about how Placer’s technology can be used to monitor people during government lockdowns. “You’re basically tracking people without letting them know. Is that right?” Placer told her they will not know who she is. But, she said, “I know you say you can’t know the person, but you can know where they’re at, if they’re leaving or staying, and if we’re supposed to be locked in our homes!” She was told, “Again, we have no way of knowing who you are.”
In their closing comments, each council member gave clues about where they stood with Placer.ai. For instance, Hayman disclosed that in the past, he has given Placer the benefit of the doubt and said the information gathered was “benign.” But now, “after hearing this presentation, folks, I don’t think it’s benign.” He “does not like where this is going.”
Councilman Skip Gorman has been hesitant about the dangers of artificial intelligence in past meetings. In this one, he concludes “these guys are clever” but have a “public relations problem.” Even though he would like to be privy to their “partner apps,”, he said he did get a lot of questions answered. He concludes that because he is “intensely curious,” he wants to try Placer out for a year and see what happens.
Rajaratnam is “not worried about the security aspect,” but does have questions about the accuracy and economic value this company will offer.
Councilman Kyle Blades has fiercely advocated for the city’s use of Placer’s technology.
Mayor Eric Bruen said he has no need for further discussion. He wants to hire Placer, and he also wants to be clear that this issue is “under the approval authority of the city manager without further resolve.” But, since it only takes one council member to “agendize” it for further discussion, which Hayman desired to do, Bruen agreed to do it.
To which Mike Neel translated, “I’ll just clarify that a little further. That means if Ron Strand wants to go ahead and buy this software, disregard everything everybody’s objected to, you could just go ahead and do it. And even over objecting to the Council, he can do it.”
More than likely, Placer.ai will be on the agenda again for discussion at the next City Council meeting, which will be held in the City Council Chambers at 6pm on August 16.