By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer– Standing in the middle of a field of chairs, City Manager Ron Strand optimistically announced, “If we track them, Kohl’s will come.” But not only Kohl’s – perhaps Burlington, Ross, and even Panera Bread will join the other franchises in Ridgecrest. In order to achieve this long-sought-after dream, three city leaders voted “Yes” to pay $19,000 a year for the use of Placer.ai’s technology. Against overwhelming opposition by about a dozen concerned citizens in the audience, Councilmen Kyle Blades, Solomon Rajaratnam, and Mayor Eric Bruen voted to obtain “benign” aggregated data from the young Israeli start-up. What this artificial intelligence (AI) gathering company promises is sure to fulfill the dream of bringing in stores to satisfy the townspeople’s every whim. Or will it? Perhaps this imagined route to the four leaders’ fantasies is actually just a scheme, and there are surer and less invasive ways to accomplish the dream.
Placer.ai is appropriately named. The term “placer” was a prospector’s method of procuring gold during the California Gold Rush in 1848. In order to aggregate their precious treasure, prospectors positioned themselves near a stream and used a pan to scoop up gravel mixed with water. They swirled it around until the lighter, rocky matter spilled out. Since gold is the heaviest of all the material, it was found at the bottom of the pan, which they scooped out and put in safe keeping until they found someone to buy it. Placer mining operations have been using this principle to procure valuable metal to enrich themselves for decades.
The data service the councilmen just voted to purchase can be explained in old-fashioned mining terms. Placer’s mine is the whole country. Imagine the United States completely covered with streams, but the streams are people with cell phones going from place to place. Placer has paid App developers for the ability to implant what could be called a “surveillance virus” into their Apps in order to extract their location data and other information. This “virus” is called an SDK or Software Development Kit. With their virus in place on millions of users’ cell phones, Placer gathers the gold when GPS location service is turned on. Placer is the prospector who mines the gold from the streams of people. With the location data mined from the apps, they are able to provide “accurate foot traffic counts and dwell time” and “know where customers are coming from and going to, and along which routes they travel.”
After three weeks of location tracking on any phone, Placer’s technology knows where the people’s phone “rests” at night, and then they hit the mother lode. This knowledge gives Placer the ability to make the gold very shiny and even more valuable. This information came out from Placer’s representative, Chris Duval, in the August 2 meeting. From this information, Councilman Scott Hayman reasoned, “They know where my phone rests. I drive myself and my phone…to work.” He wisely compared this to hunting for prey. “Somebody can monitor your habits; they can track and learn many things about you.” And that is exactly what Placer does. Since they know where the phone “lives,” they overlay that location’s census tract data, which they divide into groups of 50. This allows them to “analyze customer profiles’ income, gender, eating, and shopping habits…and much more.”
The city council just voted to be the merchant at the general store who buys the shiny gold nuggets from the AI prospector. They now have the ability to gather gold dust from each person’s pocket who happens to be at certain places at certain times, either in the present or the past, dating back to 2017. Since 2017, the year Placer began aggregating data and cellphone locations, the largely unregulated “human data trafficking” industry has grown to $200 billion annually. On June 5, the Director of National Intelligence de-classified a report on “Commercially Available Information,” or CAI, that concludes Placer’s combination of CAI with GPS location data is “increasingly powerful for intelligence and increasingly sensitive for individual privacy and civil liberties.”
Now, city staff and authorized persons will be able to grab handfuls of gold dust from almost every location in the area. Who will those people be? We are told Placer does not sell their gold to “law enforcement,” but would health agencies have mining rights? When the public was allowed to question Placer’s representative, Lisa Lewis asked, “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!”
The locations used for mining may be pre-defined “geofenced” areas such as downtown Balsam, small locally owned businesses, parks, funeral homes, apartments, credit unions, or even an outhouse at the shooting range. When asked, Placer’s representative told the council’s audience there were limitations, such as military installations, churches, and schools. And, in a response to an angry letter from 14 Democratic senators, Placer agreed to discontinue their customer’s search capability of abortion clinics. Anyone, anywhere, with a phone in the stream where Placer mines its data can hypothetically be tracked by them.
Many legitimate concerns were brought up, even though Bruen said they were “based on tin foil theories” and the concerned citizens were “making mountains out of molehills.” Later, he apologized for belittling the citizens who disagreed with him by saying he did not mean to disrespect their opinion. He just believes that “technology is a good thing for the future of our community. I am willing to take a chance to go for it.” Which he did.
has questioned the wisdom of bringing in competition to an already struggling market. He wants to know how this data-gathering company would “help the community develop our economy.” Perhaps these councilmen should talk to other professionals in town to discover ways to accomplish the dream of a more robust economy that is surer and less invasive. Mining the creative ideas from seasoned people in our small town is the real gold our council members need to acquire.