Seven years in, DPS offers no data on whether millions spent on surveillance software is helping fight crime

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When a new Texas House committee met in September to talk about what could be done to prevent mass shootings, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw was there.

The shooting deaths of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, and seven more in Midland and Odessa, were fresh in everyone’s minds. Gov. Greg Abbott had issued several executive orders aimed at somehow addressing the tragedies.

“I’m confident we’re going to need more resources, particularly analytical resources,” McCraw said. And members of the Texas House Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety Select Committee, seemed willing to give it to him, asking the DPS director several times how much he needed. 

Since 2012, Texas has spent millions of dollars with one contractor whose goal, in part, is to prevent such incidents. TrapWire, a Virginia-based company, takes images from an existing network of surveillance cameras at Texas’ government buildings, public landmarks, and along the border with Mexico, and analyzes the images to provide crime-fighting information to law enforcement agencies.

Neither the company nor DPS has offered any public explanation of what the state gets for that money, or whether it has had any actual effect on crime. Past claims of investigations begun and arrests made in part due to information provided by TrapWire had to be retracted. The most recent DPS report on suspicious arrest activity was posted three years ago and offers no way to verify the numbers it contains.

Now, however, the actual usefulness of the intel provided by the company may come under more scrutiny — as a result of the spotlight on mass shootings. 

TrapWire secured its original contract with Texas due to the urgings of a longtime private intelligence company official connected to TrapWire and who worked briefly for DPS.

The size of the contract has increased each year. Last year the base amount was about $1.2 million, with an added $2.8 million in amended costs — typical, for TrapWire’s dealings with Texas. The state in June signed a $1.35 million annual deal with the company, with options for three more years. The contract is the second largest handled by DPS.

The TrapWire program is part of what is called the state’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Network. In September, Abbott issued an order that counties must show results from such programs that monitor citizens, in order to get additional grant money.

“When physical infrastructure like a camera is placed someplace for security, there should be some kind of measurable metric as part of the business deal to validate that it is working,” said Brad Gold, a lecturer in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin.

He acknowledged that there needs to be some element of secrecy to security efforts.  But “if we’re spending tax dollars on these kinds of things, it shouldn’t be too much to ask to verify that this is working in some way.” 

A Sunset Commission report this year noted that DPS needs to better quantify the $1.4 billion it spends on the Mexican border.

DPS declined to make anyone available to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to emailed questions.

TrapWire works with both the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network and the Texas School Security Network. According to a 2017 press release from the company, its clients include the U.S. Department of Defense, federal and state law enforcement groups and private clients in energy, hospitality, finance and transportation sectors.

If the cameras capture something deemed to be suspicious, TrapWire’s software flags it and passes the information along to law enforcement.

The suspicious activity network was criticized following the committee hearings in September for its opaque conduct and lack of responsiveness to public concerns about privacy.

At the hearing, McCraw stressed the work done at regional centers is where the money is needed most – the same places that use TrapWire’s subscription-based software to analyze camera activity. 

In 2015, a DPS official, seeking to defend the contractor from an upcoming news report in The Dallas Morning News, put out results that were found to be untrue.

In an email to lobbyists, former DPS Deputy Director Robert Bodish claimed TrapWire had helped in 44 arrests.

“In Texas, TrapWire has resulted in 21 patterns identified … 44 arrests, 36 investigations launched … ,” Bodish wrote.

An open records request seeking to confirm those numbers discovered there was no proof of that assistance and the DPS retracted the claims of TrapWire’s role in any arrests.

TrapWire was created in the early 2000s as a part of security monolith Abraxas Corp. TrapWire was marketed by Austin-based Stratfor, another security operation founded in the late 90s.

TrapWire’s contracts around the U.S., including Texas, were revealed in hacked emails from Stratfor.

PC Magazine called TrapWire “a secret, comprehensive U.S. surveillance effort.”

In a 2014 press release, TrapWire said that it tries to avoid collection of personal information and if it does, “reasonable steps are taken to assure that information is relevant for the purposes for which it is to be used. We do, however, depend on our users to update and correct any information they enter.”

TrapWire was marketed through Stratfor to the state by Fred Burton, who has been chief security officer for Stratfor since 2004 but spent a brief time in 2012 as assistant director for intelligence and counter-terrorism for the DPS – long enough to secure the TrapWire contract.

His work in getting the deal — which, according to documents included a $120,000 finders fee for Stratfor — was outed in the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks in 2012.

In one email, Burton bragged of his ability to make some money off the deal. (The link is to a site that reposted emails from Wikileaks.)

“TrapWire for the Great State of Texas is a go,” he wrote to a colleague at StratFor, a security consultancy that marketed TrapWire. “As many of you old-timers know, we arranged to get a cut … the point man for the project worked directly for me at DPS … . TrapWire may be the most successful invention on the GWOT since 9-11. I knew these hacks when they were GS-12’s at the CIA. God Bless America.”

Burton declined an interview request. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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