We tend to think of militarized law enforcement as cops fielding assault rifles or riding the streets in armored trucks. But sophisticated surveillance computer systems also blur the lines between the military and police agencies. Increasingly, local law enforcement–like the Orange County Sheriff’s Department–is equipping itself with surveillance hardware and software once found only in the secretive world of the National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency to spy on suspected drug dealers, gang members, and whoever else is deemed a threat.
At its Dec. 18, 2018 meeting, the Orange County Board of Supervisors will vote on a $163,000 sole-source contract with Nebraska-based Pen-link to install and support the company’s Lincoln surveillance system at the Sheriff’s Department wiretap room. The new software, which will intercept and store data traveling over landlines, is for the Sheriff’s Regional Narcotics Suppression Program (RNSP).
“RNSP works to target, investigate and prosecute subjects involved in large scale narcotics trafficking and money laundering,” states a county staff report on the contract. “Seized illegal proceeds are returned to participating local agencies in the way of civil asset forfeiture.”
According to the staff report, RNSP already has Pen-link software running in their “wiretap room.” This software “provides for the collection, storage and analysis of telephone and internet communications for investigative purposes,” according to the staff report. But now that software is apparently outdated.
“With a court order, RNSP may wiretap phone lines and internet communication for investigative purposes in support of narcotics trafficking and money laundering cases,” states the staff report. “With the advent of new technologies, the current equipment and software is dated. The purchase order contract for the one-time purchase and installation of wire intercept equipment will increase the system’s capacity for internet intercept of information.”
The insistence here that such surveillance would only take place after a “court order” would normally be reassuring, if we were talking about an agency that wasn’t beset by the scandals that have marred the OC Sheriff’s Department over the last decade. It also doesn’t explain what investigators will do with any information about people not accused of committing crimes or under investigation that such surveillance will inevitably scoop up. In any case, Pen-link provides a variety of surveillance packages for law enforcement. According to the contract, the County of Orange is getting Pen-link’s Lincoln software system.
“The vendor, Pen-link Ltd. (Pen-link), is the only vendor to provide the Lincoln wire interface system along with the compatible and seamless software that supports case management and analytical functionality,” states the staff report. “Lincoln is a ‘Law Enforcement Only’ system which enables the electronic monitoring of investigative targets via wiretap. Pen-link will provide servers, workstations and all peripherals that comprise this wiretap system as well as the necessary analytical software compatible with the Lincoln system and only produced by Pen-link.”
But what the software will actually do is difficult to say. For its part, Pen-link refused to comment on the new OC Sheriff’s contract.
“For more than 30 years, PenLink has proudly served federal, state and local law enforcement in their efforts to keep safe the places we call home,” Anh McClure, the company’s marketing director, said in a Dec. 14 email. “PenLink is committed to supporting all those who have dedicated their lives to public service throughout our great country. We do not comment on behalf of any of our customers, and therefore, any questions regarding law enforcement efforts or programs should be directed to the appropriate agency representatives.”
Pen-link’s website isn’t particularly helpful, either, in explaining the capabilities of its various software packages.
“We bring organized information to the forefront and pull together a more visual landscape of data, giving clarity to complex data for people who need impactful answers now,” states the Pen-link website. “Our solutions make it easier to sort and dissect data to find answers.”
As for Lincoln itself, Pen-link describes it as the “perfect live collections solution for any CALEA [Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act]-based approach to electronic surveillance,” whatever that means.
“The core LINCOLN System is built on server hardware and client/server software that is run on a local area network [LAN] in the wireroom,” states the Pen-link website. “The client workstations on the LAN run a network installation of PenLink software. The collection process itself is controlled by the Pen-link 8 client software, which also offers a suite of unparalleled analytical capabilities.”
Confused? That’s the whole point. In 2017, CityLab did a deep dive into law enforcement surveillance capabilities, and even they weren’t able to discern much about what Pen-link’s software can actually do.
“The Fort Worth Police Department, which secured the acquisition using a DHS Homeland Security Grant program, declined CityLab’s request for interview on its use of Pen-link, suggesting we file another public records request,” states the Feb. 8, 2017 CityLab story “Cellphone Spy Tools Have Flooded Local Police Departments.” “And Pen-link did not respond to CityLab’s request for comment. But publicly available literature on Pen-link shows that its products can store and process large amounts of intercepted metadata, allowing officers to create visualizations of individuals’ social networks and geolocated calling patterns.”
That kind of analysis is very sophisticated, and basically means Sheriff’s investigators will be able to create a fairly accurate picture of everyone the person under surveillance interacts with online in real time. See why such software is very popular with law enforcement?
In fact, just six months ago the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) signed a $2.4 million contract with Pen-link for a new data surveillance system. In a June 7, 2018 story on the ICE contract, Newsweek called Pen-link a “little known surveillance company that mines communications data and provides ‘real-time’ tracking.”
What’s more, this isn’t the first time the County of Orange has done business with Pen-link. In fact, the staff report for the Dec. 18 Board of Supervisors meeting indicates that the Sheriff’s Department has contracted with the company on at least two previous occasions, dating back to 2012.
“This vendor has performed satisfactorily in the past with similar contracts,” states the staff report. “On November 14, 2017, the Board approved a contract with Pen-link contract for the software system that provides for the collection, storage, and analysis of telephone and internet communications for investigative purposes, for the period of July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018, in the annual not to exceed amount of $43,499. Additionally, on June 26, 2012, the Board approved a five-year contract with Pen-link for the period of July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2017, in a total not to exceed amount of $197,237, for the software system that provides for the collection, storage, and analysis of telephone and internet communications for investigative purposes.”
While a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson agreed to provide us with copies of those earlier Pen-link contracts, we’ve received nothing by press time.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.