Online surveillance firm hired by City of Bettendorf dodges follow-up questions on privacy issues

The Israeli firm hired by Bettendorf to analyze all manner of information city residents post online wants your data, but prefers to avoid scrutiny of its privacy policies.

ZenCity, headquartered in Tel Aviv, is being paid $18,000 a year by the city to vacuum up posts by residents on social media like Facebook and Twitter and any and all other online sites that carry information or comments related to Bettendorf. CLICK HERE for a partial list of online sources to be scraped for community posts.

Only publicly available online data about residents is scooped up, according to ZenCity, and when that information is fed into the company's "blackbox" algorithm it "anonymizes" the data by removing any names in the posts.

Once analyzed by artificial intelligence, the company provides city officials a "dashboard" overview of community sentiment on issues ranging from garbage collection to streets to bond referendums.

When contacted to learn more about privacy protections for citizens, the company's Customer Success Manager David Denker, who handles the city's account, was less than forthcoming. "I can't talk to the media."

He then provided a phone number for another company employee named Noah who presumable would be available to talk about the company and privacy issues. A half dozen phone calls to his number went unanswered. "Noah's" number did not even provide a voicemail option. then called the corporation's New York headquarters "press contact" Inbal Naveh Safir. Again, a half dozen calls, no answer and no voicemail.

If someone at ZenCity would have answered the phone and been available for an interview, here are a few questions in search of an answer:

  • Your privacy statement provided to Bettendorf city officials states it "only collects publicly available open data or proprietary city-owned data."

Since county property records and voter registration databases are public, does ZenCity access or plan to access those sources in the future to use in its "blackbox" algorithm?

  • Your privacy policy states your company "does not collect data that is private such as in private Facebook groups or on a personal page."

So, what exactly, does ZenCity collect from Facebook using its API** (application program interface that automates the whole process of feeding Facebook information to ZenCity)?

As a Bettendorf resident, will ZenCity collect all the "likes" and public "posts" on virtually all things a resident might post on social media? Will ZenCity retain the IP (Internet Protocol) address which identifies the computer/network on which residents use to post to social media?

  • According to your privacy statement: "ZenCity does not show individual names or identity sources, not even when a name is tagged in a post. Such information is automatically filtered out by our product."

Your use of the word "show" seems to indicate that ZenCity DOES collect the names used in those posts, it just doesn't show them to city officials. How else could you map comments to specific city locations, or know they are city residents, if you don't use identifying information of individual residents (or computer IP* numbers)?

  • According to your privacy statement: "We do not share information, even though it is public data, without the expressed permission of the city."

How would the city even know if you were sharing or selling that data to a third party? It sounds like you're saying "trust us" we won't share? What are the consequences to your company if you violate terms of the agreement? There are no financial penalties built into the agreement even if you are found to be violating the privacy clause. Moreover, who from the city would provide such permission to share data? The city administrator, the city council by resolution?

  • You indicate in your surveillance plan for the city that you will provide "heat maps" to indicate the location of specific issues and concerns.

How do you do that exactly? It would appear you would have to correlate individual computer addresses/locations with the comment to provide such specific geographic targeting.

  • The "heat map" configuration developed for the city shows the data points by voting wards in the city.

Won't a breakdown of such information by ward lead to politicizing of the data, intentionally or unintentionally, and make it valuable to politicians to use in developing election strategies?

  • Your marketing materials and comments posted on YouTube by company officials discount (and to certain extent denigrate) the involvement of citizens who attend city council meetings to directly express their concerns on city issues. The clear message from ZenCity is that its data-mining of social media is more relevant and reliable than direct feedback from residents to city officials.

In this age of "fake news" and trolls, what statistics/research do you have to show that your algorithm-driven system provides better insight into residents' views than citizen surveys and public feedback at council meetings?

  • When your contract with the city expires, what happens to all the data you've collected on city residents?

Wilth termination of the agreement, there is nothing in the ZenCity contract that requires the company to delete all data collected on city residents? Will your company continue to store the information and/or share or sell to third-parties? Do you retain a right to use of that data in the future for other purposes?

So, ZenCity, if you're capturing this article with your online snooping program, have your algorithm use its artificial intelligence to respond. Otherwise, provide an old-fashioned phone number to so we can get some answers to these questions.


*IP stands for Internet Protocol: a communications protocol for computers connected to a network, especially the Internet, specifying the format for addresses and units of transmitted data.

**API stands for for Application Programming Interface. An API is software that allows two applications to talk to each other. In other words, an API is the messenger that delivers information automatically from Facebook and Twitter and other social media directly to ZenCity's computers.

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