THE CITY OF Benicia’s deal with a company that collects aggregate location data about residents and visitors in town has raised questions for some about privacy and prompted a call for an independent advisory board to oversee technology purchases that utilize such data.

On Dec. 19, the Benicia City Manager’s Office purchased a year-long contract for $20,000 with Placer.ai, a location analytics tech company that tracks foot traffic in any given region. The company gathers data taken from cellphones to determine analytics about how many people visit a location and where they came from.

Interim Assistant City Manager Mario Giuliani said that the software will help Benicia evaluate the success of various events it sponsors by providing aggregate data about participants as well as helpful economic data.

For example, Giuliani said the software will enable the city to determine how many out-of-towners show up to its events, how many residents were there, where they were most likely to congregate, and what businesses they patronized. Though the data does not give specific sales tax information, Giuliani said it provides the city with information that they can glean about sales without having to wait six months for actual sales tax numbers.

“The data does not track if a sale is made or what you ordered for dinner, but it can estimate using previous data that every person that enters the establishment equals a certain value in sales,” Giuliani said.

What the data does not include, Giuliani said, is identifying private information about people in town and their movements.

“It’s metadata that they are able to identify and put into aggregate form,” he said.

A screengrab from the Placer.ai website shows one of its data aggregator tools in use to identify which department stores are most popular in parts of the Bay Area. (Image via Placer.ai)

Anonymous data

Koby Ben-Zvi, president of Placer.ai, said that it has “400-plus” civic customers like Benicia that use his platform to better understand local economic developments and trends.

“Please note that Placer.ai is not a data broker, and does not sell or provide data that can be traced back to individual users whatsoever,” he said in an email.

According to the Los Altos company’s website, “The data we receive is stripped of identifiers, such as mobile advertising identifiers (“MAIDs”), names, other persistent device Ids, and contact information. We intentionally built our business with underlying technology that doesn’t rely on personally identifiable information.”

Placer.ai depends on figures gleaned from the location data taken from people’s mobile apps. Most people are familiar with being asked permission to share their location with an app, and it’s this data that companies like Placer.ai utilizes, according to the Placer.ai website and Guiliani.

The company has not disclosed which apps it has teamed up with to collect the data, but in June the company said that it has its software development kit (SDK) on over 30 million active devices. It declared a value of $1 billion in January 2022.

“The data we receive is stripped of identifiers … and contact information. We intentionally built our business with underlying technology that doesn’t rely on personally identifiable information.”

Placer.ai website

Gregg Horton is an information security specialist and resident of Benicia who is concerned about what he describes as his city’s casual spending of $20,000 for something that could be a privacy minefield without any council approval or public input.

Horton said he first heard about the city’s use of location data when Giuliani made an “offhanded” comment about it at the most recent City Council meeting on Dec. 20 about the city’s next Fourth of July celebration.

At that meeting, Giuliani told the council that the city had subscribed to a new service that would allow it to track location data from cellphones.

“We can have real-time data on how many attendees come to this event, we can also ascertain where they’re coming from and … very specifically, when they arrive here, what restaurant they are coming from and where they are going to.”

‘We’re dropping the ball’

This comment raised the hackles of some people in town like Horton, who had already led a charge last year about the Benicia Police Department’s purchase of license plate readers without a request for proposals or public input.

“The fact that we learned about things through offhanded comments seems backwards,” said Horton, adding that he does not think that Giuliani has any “malicious” intent with the location subscription, but that it should have gone through a process to ensure transparency.

“It’s absurd that I even need to be checking on this this closely, because I feel like Benicia can be an example of how to do things correctly, since we are a smaller city with an engaged populace,” Horton said. “We’re dropping the ball.”

Though Placer.ai “emphatically” states on its website that it does not sell or provide data that can be traced back to individual users, the company has gotten flak for providing heat maps on its website that connected Planned Parenthood clinic visits with aggregate information about where the people who went there live.

In May, 14 U.S. Senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, wrote letters to both Placer.ai and SafeGraph analytics companies requesting that they stop selling location data of people who visit abortion clinics. Both companies agreed to halt the practice.

“The Company commits, on a permanent basis, to disabling user access to data about any additional sensitive locations that raise similar concerns,” reads a statement by Placer.ai on Warren’s website.

Keeping track of trackers

Location data surrounding abortion providers has come under scrutiny after the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, sparking worries that women may be tracked and possibly punished for doing so in states that have severely restricted the medical practice.

Some location data concerns have ended up in federal court. In August, the Federal Trade Commission sued data broker Kochava Inc. for selling data it obtained from “hundreds of millions of mobile devices,” the government alleges. Specifically, the FTC wants the company to stop tracking reproductive health clinics, places of worship, homeless and domestic violence shelters, and addiction recovery centers.

On Nov. 17, 33 state attorneys general signed a letter in support of the idea.

As far as “sensitive” locations in Benicia, it would be useful for city government to know how many out-of-towners are coming to buy cannabis at its dispensary, Stiiizy, but it might make some people uncomfortable to know that their visits there are being aggregated, Horton said.

Knowing how many out-of-towners shop at the local cannabis dispensary might be useful for Benicia city officials, but it could make some people uncomfortable to know that their visits there are being aggregated. (Image via Stiiizy/Vimeo)

“Maybe it’s a fine process, maybe it’s only being used for the best-case scenarios,” said Horton. “But what happens when somebody gets access to that data who is against something that people are doing and wants to track those people and figure out who they are and punish them for whatever reason?”

Giuliani said residents can opt out of being part of the aggregate data by simply removing location permissions on their cellphones. This would be made easier if Placer.ai provided information about which apps it is attached to, but its website makes no mention of specifics. It is also not clear if Placer.ai gets its data “pre-scrubbed” of identity information beyond a person’s IP address — if even that — or if it scrubs the information itself.

Tracy Rosenberg of the watchdog group Oakland Privacy said companies like Placer.ai that use aggregate location data “never tell you exactly what they are doing.”

“I think it’s a delusion that we commonly have that we can turn these things off,” she said. “And it’s been demonstrated that, in fact, we can’t.”

Rosenberg said that big companies like Google or cellphone providers will still get that data.

Tracking vs. surveillance

Benicia Mayor Steve Young rejects the idea that the city overstepped by purchasing the subscription to Placer.ai.

“There is a big difference between the use of cellphones for surveillance and spyware purposes and locational tracking,” he said. “The former has the ability to not only identify you, but also extract information from your phone like messages, videos and photos. Locational tracking, by comparison, does not identify individuals and is happening all the time for everyone that has not turned off that feature on their phone.”

Young said, “It is used for GPS, emergency road service, Uber and Lyft, as well as companies that hit you with advertising when you enter their store. The city’s use of locational tracking is benign and is used to better understand where our visitors are coming from and where they visit when they are here.”

“I think it’s a delusion that we commonly have that we can turn these things off. And it’s been demonstrated that, in fact, we can’t.”

Tracy Rosenberg, Oakland Privacy watchdog group

For some, the solution to any questions about intent, privacy and oversight could be solved by the creation of an independent advisory committee that monitors purchases such as these so that Benicians can be as informed as possible. Horton said he has asked the city to assemble one and had no luck.

“There needs to be checks and balances because there seem to be none,” he said.

Privacy issues aside, Horton said he is also concerned about the city spending money on things like this when it is struggling financially. Indeed, much of the Dec. 20 council meeting was spent talking about the urgency around cutting costs as the city faces deficits.

“There’s a process here that hasn’t been implemented that we desperately need, because we’re going to get more companies like this trying to sell whatever solution to the city,” Horton said. “And as we’re trying to raise revenue in the city, there’s going to be companies that are going to promise a lot and we need to be very aware of that.”