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Greater Austin residents who have worn "an Arabic style hat" in public, snapped photos of gas pipelines or made anti-police comments on social media in the last decade may have been added to a secret watchlist of suspected domestic terrorists.
News of this surveillance program first broke when the hacktivist group Anonymous claimed to have made public a massive trove of law enforcement private data, dubbed BlueLeaks.
The group stole data from more than 250 law enforcement websites, many of which belonged to fusion centers. Created by Congress in the aftermath of 9/11, fusion centers function as collaborative databases through which federal, state and local enforcement agencies can share terrorism-related intelligence.
The BlueLeaks trove contained nearly a decade of information from the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center set up in 2010 to weave together intelligence information from 20 local law enforcement agencies, ranging from school district police departments to county sheriff's offices. It is one of eight fusion centers in the state of Texas.
The ARIC currently works with 1,388 threat liaison officers, or TLOs, according to an APD spokesperson. These officers include sworn police as well as government employees and private citizens. APD has 366 TLOs, the spokesperson wrote in an email to Austonia.
TLOs are trained to report suspicious activity "that has a potential terrorism or criminal nexus," per the spokesperson, and their reports are reviewed by ARIC personnel to ensure it was "legally gathered" and meets federal standards.
The reports released within BlueLeaks, however, raise questions about the threshold of suspicious behavior.
Kevin Welch is the president of EFF-Austin, a nonprofit civil liberties organization. The ARIC has been on the group's radar since it was formed a decade ago, he said, but BlueLeaks has corroborated some of their concerns.
"One thing that came out in BlueLeaks specific to Austin is that there have been multiple instances reported to ARIC where a behavior that would not have been deemed suspicious by an average citizen got flagged by ARIC simply because the person reported was of Middle Eastern descent," Welch told Austonia. "So we see (them) inconsistent applying their own rules about what is and isn't suspicious based on the race of the suspect—so engaging in blatant racial profiling—even though that's ostensibly against their formal policy and standards."
The Austin Chronicle reported that dozens of the suspicious activity reports filed by TLOs affiliated with the AIRC describe "Middle Eastern" individuals and may qualify as unconstitutional profiling. One such report, filed by an employee of the Lakeway Police Department, concerned a couple trying to mail a package of toys to Lebanon, according to the newspaper; another warns of a regular MetroRail rider who was wearing "an Arabic style hat."
BlueLeaks also reveals police monitoring of activists.
Houston-based activist Derrick Broze tweeted on Aug. 17 that he and a friend, Austin bookstore owner John Bush, had been reported by a TLO in 2016 for "anti-government" activism and "organizing against police brutality."
Found out a good friend/activist John Bush and I were listed in the #BlueLeaks from Austin Regional Intelligence Ce… https://t.co/4H9lAtGMtl— Derrick Broze (@Derrick Broze)1597720769.0
Grassroots Leadership, a local nonprofit that advocates against mass incarceration, published a report on Aug. 5 titled "Austin's Big Secret." In it, the authors write about ARIC's "troubling history" with surveilling Austin residents, including those who attended Occupy Wall Street protests and vegan potlucks.
Tribune of the People, a website that chronicles the activities of local antifa groups such as Defend Our Hoodz and the Mike Ramos Brigade, published an editorial in July that argued BlueLeaks "paints a picture of how (law enforcement agencies) profile the movement, stretching the imagination in order to criminalize it."
Emma Best is the co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a self-described "group of privacy and transparency activists." The group was reportedly provided the BlueLeaks data by Anonymous, which it published. "I've seen a few comments about (BlueLeaks) being unlikely to uncover gross police misconduct, but I think those somewhat miss the point, or at least equate police misconduct solely with illegal behavior," she told Wired. "Part of what a lot of the current protests are about is what police do and have done legally."
There are also concerns about the efficacy of fusion centers in achieving their stated aim.
Despite the investment of "hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars," such centers "(have) not produced useful intelligence to support Federal counterterrorism efforts," according to a 2012 U.S. Senate report.
Welch said he is hopeful that BlueLeaks may spur policy change, pointing to the impact that cell footage of police violence had in catalyzing the Black Lives Matter movement.
"People are ending up in the ARIC database for just taking pictures of public buildings from public right of ways... —that's something that anybody could envision themselves innocently doing," Welch said. "And suddenly they're in this database as a suspicious person. So I think that can go a long way in getting people to understand there's a problem."
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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