A Enterprise That Types Jails is Spying On Activists Who Oppose Them

HDR Inc. is a multi-billion dollar architecture and design and style agency that has designed around 275 jails and prisons. But coming up with buildings isn’t really the only service the corporation offers—according to paperwork attained by way of a community records request and offered to Motherboard, the business has been monitoring activist groups’ social media for the governing administration, which include persons who have opposed its options to create jails and highways.

The files display HDR surveilled equally public and non-public Facebook teams run by activists opposed to its projects, such as the resistance camp Moadag Thadiwa, which sought to block the construction of a virtually $2 billion highway that cuts by means of the sacred Indigenous mountain Moahdak Do’ag in Arizona. Other teams the agency monitored include a private team for locals identified as Ahwatukee411, and Guarding Arizona’s Sources & Kids (PARC), an organization that sued the Arizona Office of Transportation around the freeway. 

The enterprise also generated an “influencer” report, an analysis of public sentiment on social media platforms, and a geospatial examination that put communities into types this sort of as “ethnic enclaves,” “barrios urbanos,” “scholars and patriots,” and “American dreamers.” HDR reported it designed social media accounts with a reach of around 5,000 Fb followers and 25,000 email subscribers weekly that “provided a system for correct undertaking information and facts.”       

The surveillance is done by HDR’s STRATA workforce, a division that “leverages massive knowledge sets to visually display social and political risk nationwide,” in accordance to files attained by Creating Up People today Not Prisons, a jail abolitionist coalition. The firm’s “social listening” software presents 24/7 checking of social media platforms to identify traits and essential influencers. Gathered intelligence is then despatched to the authorities and utilized to tell HDR’s “strategic communications” tactics, whereby the enterprise creates qualified television, radio, and social media strategies, as nicely as hosts public hearings for clientele.

“Controversy is expensive, both equally in standing and in pounds. Social and political chance warrants consideration at the scheduling phase of a undertaking or software where by it can be meticulously assessed,” HDR advertises in a publicly-accessible doc, “and when there is time to establish tactics to mitigate or diminish possibility.” (Since this report was released, the doc has been removed from HDR’s web site. A duplicate is linked above, for posterity)

HDR declined to answer to Motherboard’s ask for for remark, with a spokesperson stating that it is “corporate policy not to converse on behalf of our clientele or their tasks.”  

In accordance to added paperwork received by Motherboard through a public data ask for, the Board of Commissioners in Greene County, Ohio hired HDR in April 2021 for “justice consulting and organizing services” to build a new jail that will need to have acceptance from voters. As section of the agreement, HDR is sending weekly studies to the county summarizing its social listening marketing campaign, which identifies probable risks, influencers, social networks, and user demographics. The corporation is also building a “community involvement strategy” that “educates stakeholders and the all round group about the proposed solution” in an endeavor to persuade locals on the job.

HDR’s perform is an illustration of what some scholars connect with “company counterinsurgency,” or company countermovements. When social movements threaten income and political agendas, organizations and the government from time to time work facet-by-facet to neutralize those who oppose controversial assignments.  

“Often these tactics are dressed like wolves in sheeps’ outfits,” John Stauber, an creator and qualified on field manipulation, told Motherboard. “They are operate like a public participation course of action, when the actual uses are surveying and analyzing public opinion, the leadership of prospective opposition groups, and citizen activists who seek to transform, delay or halt a multi-million greenback project.” 

In these strategies, corporations typically explain the community as an equivalent lover, Stauber mentioned. “But if associates of the community are opposed in any way to the objectives of the project they come to be the enemy, to be dealt with and overcome through advanced and generally invisible PR and media administration methods.”

Ways frequently fall into “hard” and “soft” groups. Hard practices include things like deputizing law enforcement to confront protesters on the floor, as properly as infiltration and other sorts of violence. At the Standing Rock anti-pipeline encampment in North Dakota, for illustration, personal protection guards performing for Energy Transfer Companions violently attacked water protectors with canine and pepper spray, and law enforcement arrested extra than 500 people. Gentle tactics incorporate partaking reformist-oriented activists and what some students contact “engineering consent” by astroturf campaigns and other community relation procedures. Enbridge, the company creating the Line 3 pipeline, is funding “Minnesotans for Line 3,” a pro-pipeline team presenting itself as a grassroots business.

HDR’s STRATA appears to principally use the latter tactic. Hoping to safe a deal for creating and planning a controversial new women’s jail in Massachusetts, HDR advertised its social listening expert services in a report submitted to Massachusetts’ Division of Capital Asset Administration and Servicing (DCAMM) in September 2020. 

“Now far more than ever it is vital to monitor and make the most of digital conversation to assistance tutorial our interaction strategies and procedures,” the company wrote. “We live in a time where by discussions on social fairness and injustices are really commonplace in our every day discussions and the discussions shift substantially from 1 subject to the subsequent in a issue of hrs.”  

DCAMM and HDR are well-acquainted with activist-induced threat. In June 2021, Travis County in Austin, Texas paused its plans with HDR to establish a new women’s jail subsequent pushback from activists. And on two occasions, DCAMM’s options to establish a new women’s jail have been delayed by lawful issues mounted by the local activist team People for Justice and Healing (FJAH). 

“We will not will need the police. We don’t require cameras. We really don’t need a model new prison. We need sources,” Sashi James, an FJAH member whose mothers and fathers had been incarcerated when she was a boy or girl, informed Motherboard.

Maybe with this threat in head, DCAMM’s Project Supervisor Emmanuel Andrade expressed desire in HDR’s social listening platform, according to e-mail obtained by Motherboard. “We’re intrigued by how HDR would use this interaction apply of checking and examining on the net discussions in our venture,” he replied. “Can HDR share a couple illustrations of how that has been attained in the latest assignments?”  

HDR’s response unveiled the organization experienced been surveilling activists’ social media and running “strategic communications” for the governing administration given that at least 2016. In 2015, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) hired HDR as an “engineering specialist” for For the Akimel O’odham individuals, who reside in the nearby Gila River Indian Group (GRIC), the mountain is revered, revered and household to their most effective deity. Indigenous and environmental activists mounted a defense, with a resistance camp and legal issues introduced by GRIC, Defending Arizona’s Resources and Youngsters (PARC), and other groups. 

The surveillance and PR aided tell strategy and messaging that, in accordance to HDR,  “effectively altered the discussion of the venture to focus on the positive community assist, economic rewards, career creation and improved mobility in the region.”

Even though HDR claims to promote engagement with citizens and stakeholders, GRIC has mentioned that their worries, and the issues of other indigenous teams, weren’t respected. Law enforcement barred GRIC and activists from attending at least a person general public assembly prior to the freeway was officially opened in 2019.  

James, the activist with Family members for Justice and Therapeutic, equally mentioned the government and HDR are not listening to specifically impacted community associates. Through a community assembly earlier this year, Massachusetts allotted HDR hrs to present its proposal, although the group was allotted 8 minutes, according to James. 

On June 4, 2021, the Massachusetts Section of Corrections and DCAMM signed a contract with HDR for the review and design and style of a jail for girls. DCAMM did not respond to a ask for for clarification on no matter whether the agency will be relying on HDR’s social listening expert services.  

To activists like James, selecting general public relations consultants like HDR who declare to know what is ideal for the group is just a different type of policing.

“They are bringing in people today who have no notion, who have never ever been incarcerated, who have by no means experienced to even consider about what it feels like to take a ideal switch with no a blinker on just to get pulled in excess of and get your motor vehicle searched” she explained. “When you have [directly impacted] corporations laying out infrastructures of how we imagine public safety, to say that you want to develop a new jail shows that the technique only has 1 vision. And which is to preserve incarcerating us.”

Update: Soon after this report was revealed, a document about HDR’s PR approach was eliminated from the company’s internet site. The business did not instantly answer to a request for remark.