Operation Relentless Pursuit: Test Beds For “Smart City” Signals Intelligence?

On January 7, 2020 Black Alliance for Peace – Baltimore issued a demand that public officials reject a planned surge of militarized policing authorized by the Trump administration. Operation Relentless Pursuit is targeting Baltimore and six other mid-size cities, all of which have significant Black and Brown populations. The others include: Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, and Albuquerque. Representatives of the FBI, DEA, AFT, and US Marshall Service were present at the Department of Justice’s December 18, 2019 press conference.

I write this post as a statement of solidarity in support of their demands and to examine this operation in light of my recent work around policing, diversion courts, and prison “reform” as a global investment market. I have concerns that some of the funds associated with this vile operation may be channeled into problematic technological systems. Residents of these cities could end up as test-subjects for new forms of militarized digital surveillance intended to further harm Black and Brown communities while allowing military interests to refine the signals intelligence required for future urban military actions. Data collected under the pretense of crime reduction could also create baselines to expand futures markets in human capital (pay for success). Baltimore, in particular, is home to major players in the global impact investing space. Among them: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, Johns Hopkins, and Yet Analytics.

Baltimore Impact Investing and Innovation

Interactive map of Baltimore Impact Investing and Government Innovation here.

According to the Black Alliance for Peace – Baltimore’s statement, these cities all participate in the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program, which permits police departments to secure surplus military equipment. The statement goes on to say, “Related is the ‘Deadly Exchange’ program, which is a massive exchange between the U.S. and the Israeli police and Israeli military where hyper-militarized techniques and technologies are shared.”

Five of Operation Relentless Pursuit’s cities are partners with Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities.” The program promotes municipal “innovation” with data-driven policies and public-private partnerships that provide cover for hostile corporate takeovers of ostensibly public assets. These programs are advanced through donations of in-kind consulting services to governments, provided by fellows from Bloomberg’s iTeams. Last year Israel’s Ministry of the Interior set up a “civic innovation” program in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies to install change agents in twelve Israeli communities.

The program, called Hazira, is located in Tel Aviv. Sir Ronald Cohen’s Israeli office of Social Finance, originator of the first social impact bond, is located there as well. We are living within an increasingly militarized web woven by global financial interests. Activists must always be making connections between policing actions and economic violence carried out at home and abroad. For transnational global capital, borders are fluid; it is for the masses that borders and biometrics are deployed to impose control. Technologies devised to manage one population; whether British prisoners, the children of Gaza, or the homeless of Austin, spread like viruses. For this reason solidarity among cities and through international channels will be vital as we all face the violence of late-stage capitalism.

What Works Cities Bloomberg

Interactive map of What Works Cities here.



Militarization of urban environments by public and private security forces (including robots) is a growing concern. In September of 2019 a story in Newsweek revealed that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought to procure “hyper-realistic training devices” that would include up to fifty new prop buildings constructed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Just shy of a million dollars was budgeted for two replicas: a Chicago model and an Arizona model. It appears the government is leveraging brutal immigration enforcement policies to launch a training program for domestic counter-insurgent warfare. This is not surprising given the economic and social unrest anticipated to ramp up as the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses.

In a 2017 interview with Ann Marie Slaughter of New America at a symposium on the future of war, Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the need for the US army to optimize for urban warfare stating that provisions were being made to design tanks and helicopters to fit these new terrain requirements (clip here). Later in the conference Eric Schmidt of Alphabet / Google, a funder of New America, stated that the future of war would be shaped by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, and pattern recognition (clip here) leading to an increase in lethality from precision weaponry. These sentiments are affirmed by a 2016 report prepared by Mitre for US Army TRADOC D-2 Mad Scientist Megacities and Dense Urban Areas Initiative. The document describes the need for robust systems of data collection and analysis in cities via sensor networks.

Mad Scientists Urban MegaCities

Source, page 16 here.

In October of 2017 I attended a public meeting on the future of policing hosted by Azavea in conjunction with the International Police Chiefs Conference. At the end of the Q&A then CIO of Philadelphia, Charles Brennan, stated the future of policing was facial recognition software, predictive analytics, and drone surveillance. Robert Cheetham, a colleague of Brennan’s who founded Azavea after being trained in landscape architecture at UPenn and initiating GIS mapping for the Philadelphia police department, had lobbied for city’s “open-data” policy.

Cheetham capitalized on that free data, creating Hunchlab, a predictive policing software program, which was sold back to Philadelphia and other cities where Black people have been killed or assaulted by police including East St. Louis and Chicago. According to this history of the project, the NSF actually funded the research used to develop the for-profit Hunchlab platform. For more on Hunchlab and the rise of predictive policing software I recommend Bilel Benbouzid’s 2019 article from Big Data Society, “To Predict and to manage. Predictive policing in the United States.”

Future of Policing Azavea

Azavea event description here.

Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are important. Anyone who’s been following state intervention into resistance movements, including pipeline protests, knows that drones are go-to tools of law enforcement. In 2015, the state of North Dakota even passed a law permitting police to equip drones with non-lethal weapons. A 2019 article put out by Curt Fleming on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police suggests that with strategic education and legislative changes, nests of drones could be mounted on public buildings in service of urban policing within the decade.

Drone Nests

Drone policing source here.

Aerial surveillance is not limited to drones/UAVs, but can include satellite imagery and even planes equipped with industrial cameras. In Baltimore, a plane-based monitoring program is being reinstated after having been quashed due to its secretive nature back in 2016. At the time John Arnold, a key figure in impact market development and reentry services, was found to have been underwriting the program. Persistent Surveillance Systems provided the monitoring using military technology developed for use in Iraq. Undisclosed philanthropists are funding this next round of the program, which involves three planes flying over the city for four to six months.

Drone Surveillance Persistent Software Systems

More information here.

Again think about the military goal of training algorithms for pattern recognition. Imagine all this data being captured about our social relations in urban environments. Any small sliver may not be actionable, but in aggregate and funneled into enormous data lakes, these feeds will undoubtedly begin to exert tremendous control over civic life. As if Internet of Things-based predictive policing were not bad enough, consider what it would mean to layer in risk-profiling of individuals and communities for social impact investments.

We know truancy is an impact metric. Could UAV or plane surveillance data be used to target “impactful” interventions for families of children deemed to be at risk? How about addiction? Will aerial surveillance or Internet of Things Data be used to track substance users in a given census tract? Could policing extend to monitoring the retinal scans of users of supportive housing if they are under state supervision?

Even something as seemingly innocuous as infrastructure for a public transit app opens the door wider to surveillance as is seen in this US Department of Transportation “smart city” application prepared by the City of Albuquerque (which was not ultimately funded). In this excerpt you can see the impetus for the mesh network was ostensibly to track buses and allow building inspectors to upload data, but it also would have made police access to surveillance cameras and criminal records easier, too.

Albuquerque Smart City Surveillance

Source “Beyond Traffic The Smart City Challenge” Albuquerque here.

So, it appears the US military anticipates a future of urban warfare, likely within our borders. They are adapting their capabilities to this environment, which had previously been according to Milley “sub-optimized.” The weapons will be informed by AI, and their effectiveness will require lots of training data. The more data that is fed into these systems, the better its “pattern recognition” will be. Now, consider the ways in which digital surveillance has been normalized, particularly in cities, under the pretense of creating “safer” environments. Consider widespread adoption of body cameras, which Axon Enterprise (formerly Taser), distributed for “free” to police departments. The company has been data-mining that footage to refine its own AI.

Seventy-one million federal dollars have been budgeted for Operation Relentless Pursuit. While I anticipate much of that will be used to pay for traditional mechanisms of policing, the press release does state funds can be used for “mission critical equipment and technology.” The seven cities being targeted are all part of the big data, government agenda. They’re involved in “smart city” planning efforts, have “open data” portals, and are collaborating with social impact investment / municipal “innovation” interests through Living Cities and the Bloomberg-backed “What Works” Cities program. Four of the seven municipalities are participants in the Strive Together “Cradle to Career” network, and four are part of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Safety + Justice” Challenge. Several are working with the Behavioral Insights Team, “nudge” consulting.

Operation Relentless Pursuit Map

Interactive map of Operation Relentless Pursuit here.

So-called “smart” city sensor networks and “open data” policies that digitally track public engagement with municipal services need to be viewed as tools of signals intelligence. While touted as enabling cost-effective and accountable budgeting, data-driven e-government is actually about ceding community control to predictive analytics and risk assessment algorithms.

This transition is advancing:

1) lean efficiencies / labor automation that will result in widespread poverty

2) the engineering of labor markets in service of transnational global capital

3) the creation of human capital investment markets where people = data

The hub that permits all of this to move forward is the carceral state: policing, courts, custody, and state supervision. Policing should be understood to include not just municipal law enforcement, but the “soft” policing of welfare officials, state and federal law enforcement, the US military, as well as private security forces. All enact violence against poor communities, though the methods vary. The carceral state works hand-in-hand with “smart cities” and IoT deployment.

The signals intelligence of data-driven policing and justice will be used to:

1) identify and confront threats to systems of control / contain the impoverished

2) absorb surplus labor as living wage jobs disappear

3) justify and document cost-off sets needed to run “pay for success” impact deals

Smart City Policing

IoT Policing Poverty


Efforts are underway to portray the “digitally harmonized citizen” of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as an innovative entrepreneur who will be able to pursue a prosperous “personalized” future through 5G / Internet of Things edge computing. In fact, the vast majority of folks will instead be predictively profiled into permanent poverty and mined for their data as human capital investments. That is the intent behind the big-money interests of the Living Cities and What Works Cities initiatives.

Harmonization of Digital Citizen IEEE.jpg


The map below shows the linkages in Cincinnati between Procter and Gable, the Internet of Things, and Strive Together / Knowledgeworks’ human capital tracking programs. On the right are the seven cities of Relentless Pursuit in orange. All but one are linked to either a Strive “cradle to career” or MacArthur / Collective Shift LRNG program of badge/place-based “lifelong” learning in cities (see my post on navigating whiteness). The bottom section features select partnerships the MacArthur Foundation has supported to structure data around the carceral cost off-sets needed to underpin profit taking from the“human capital” management / processing / surveillance of populations deemed “at risk.” To the left of that are links to IEEE and some of the mechanics of digital citizenship. Finally the left side shows the tentacles of the Rockefeller Foundation in the impact investing space. The Rockefeller Foundation is but one of eighteen influential funders working through Living Cities.

Relentless Pursuit Living Cities

Interactive version of Relentless Pursuit / Living Cities map here.

Policy pushers with Ivy League degrees know there will be resistance to what is coming. Government officials attending all of these “Future of Work” panels know it, too. What they need is to have systems in place to predict unrest and contain it, preferably so that the people who already have most of the money make even money; because that is how the machine runs. I suspect that the technologies that will be deployed as part of this operation will begin to address those needs. Perhaps these seven cities are test beds to try out options for military signals intelligence AND human capital data monitoring.

Operation Relentless Pursuit will not improve quality of life in these seven cities. It will be yet another layer added onto a toxic accretion of racist policing. This phase may, however, impose more sophisticated tools of surveillance and data analysis than have been previously seen. It will also serve to push up the number of people under state supervision, so that when human capital impact markets begin to scale, the cost-offsets of mass incarceration have been maximized. Gang-related profiling will likely be used to create baselines for expanding juvenile justice related impact investing; the same for substance users and “evidence-based” addiction treatments. In the end it’s ultimately about building global markets and shutting down dissent.

Brandon Walker of Ujima People’s Progress Party gave an extensive interview about Operation Relentless Pursuit and his view of situation in Baltimore. He expressed a deep desire to reassert community control in response to the systematic and chronic abdication of responsibility carried out by public agencies and elected officials for decades. I suspect similar sentiments are shared in the six other cities. The What Works / Living Cities model is the antithesis of that. Liberation won’t come from an open data portal. Look what we got in Philadelphia – predictive policing software. I write to express my solidarity with Mr. Walker and community members in the other six cities who find themselves in the cross-hairs of Operation Relentless Pursuit, a terrible misdirection of federal funds with tremendous potential for violence to be used against innocent people.

Our collective futures depend on stopping wars at home, including Operation Relentless Pursuit, and the wars abroad. People are hurting. We need the 67 cents of every taxpayer dollar spent on defense to be redirected to poor communities so they can have a voice, self-determination, and start build the world we need; a world of peace where the machines of mass incarceration and militarization are completely dismantled.

If this sounds compelling, check out the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s #LivesOverLuxury March on the Democratic National Convention planned for July 13, 2020 in Milwaukee. Find more information here.

Lives Over Luxury




#LivesOverLuxury: The Poor People’s Army Will March on the DNC in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020

Today the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign officially launches preparations for the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee where we plan to march to demand an end to the wars at home and abroad. The 67 cents of every taxpayer dollar that is devoted to waging war must instead be used to meet our responsibilities to those in need here at home. The theme of the march, #LivesOverLuxury, speaks to the brutality of wealth inequality, gentrification, and dispossession. The Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign is an organization advocating for the rights of poor and is led by poor people. This afternoon there will be a press conference in Milwaukee. Press release below. 


January 9, 2020 PRESS CONTACTS
Cheri Honkala: 215-869-4753
Galen Tyler: 215-883-9771 

The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) and the Poor People’s Army announce the #LivesOverLuxury March on the DNC, that will be held opening day of the Democratic National Convention on July 13, 2020 at 4:00 p.m.

MEMBERS OF THE POOR PEOPLE’S ARMY WILL BE ON HAND JANUARY 10 AT 2:00 P.M., AT FISERV FORUM ON THE SE CORNER OF 6TH ST AND WEST JUNEAU IN MILWAUKEE, WI, the site of this summer’s DNC, to speak to the press and public about plans for the march and the teach-in they are holding.

Cheri Honkala, a formerly homeless mother, antipoverty advocate, and
founder of PPEHRC, will provide details of the march. Also present will
be other PPEHRC leaders who organize and educate around issues impacting youth, student debt, community and police violence, climate crises, lack of living wage jobs, and homelessness.

“I want to encourage everyone to come out and address this epidemic, the
endless gun violence, that exists in our communities, especially the
African American community,” said Jamal Johnson, of Stop Killing Us
organization. “Also want to make all aware that we are the solution to
the problem, so we must galvanize to combat it. That’s in a country that
spends $50 million on security for a week at the DNC but abandons
addressing the violence at home.”

“People don’t have a place to live, they’re dying. There’s homeless
people right here in Milwaukee, and violence at home and abroad,” said
Honkala. “As Dr. King said, humankind must put an end to war or war will
put an end to humankind.”

Since 2000, PPEHRC has had the largest marches outside both the
Democratic and Republican National Conventions each election year. This
year, at a time so crucial for the future of humanity and the planet,
PPEHRC will amass the largest Poor People’s Army this country has ever
seen outside the DNC to take back the $.67 of every government dollar
spent on war and occupation, to end poverty and all forms of violence at
home and abroad.

PPEHRC is dedicated to building a movement that unites the poor across
color lines. Poverty afflicts people of all colors. Every day more and
more people are downsized and impoverished. Millions of Americans are in
poverty, and millions more working and middle class people are just
paychecks away, or medical bankruptcies away. from homelessness and

With the world’s press and attention on the theatrics at the Democratic
and Republican conventions, the Poor People’s Army will put poor people
front and center in a historic march that will demand a different kind
of world where the world’s resources are protected and used to meet the
basic needs of all people. The march and teach-in will feature speakers
and performers from across the country.

Lives Over Luxury

Andy Willis, our comrade from Chicago, created an amazing poster to promote the event. Because of my research I was asked to write up a brief description to go with it, even though the visual alone is incredibly powerful. The take-away is that while we are up against incredible odds, and our government (both sides) has completely sold us out, we should not despair, but instead organize. Poor people, working class people DO have power; what is needed is to come together. Organizing for this march and week-long teach-in provides just such an opportunity. 


We face a disruptive future brought about by climate catastrophe, militarization, wealth inequality and the automation of labor. The global elite have deprived the masses of a living wage, access to stable housing, healthy food, and quality healthcare. We are at a tipping point. Millions are cast out of their communities, disconnected from one another and social institutions. With so many adrift in media noise, drugs, and violence it is vital that we focus, organize, and begin to restore authentic connections and systems of mutual aid to prepare for what is to come.

Those in power intend to manage global disruption profitably and brutally. That infrastructure is being put in place now, branded as “smart” city technologies. Cloud computing, Internet of Things sensors, artificial intelligence, and Blockchain feed signals intelligence to US Defense interests. Sophisticated systems of surveillance and militarized policing are sneaking in behind innocuous programs like transit apps and digital payment systems. We are unthinkingly adopting life-killing technologies that will force the poor into open-air jails as we poison the planet. There is nothing “smart” about systems that demand the mining of rare minerals by child labor and vast quantities of clean water to cool server farms, not to mention e-waste. 

Hedge funds plan to use technology not only to police us, but also to nudge our actions and digitize us as data. Then they can gamble on our identities, our futures as human capital assets, securitized and traded on derivatives markets. The poor will be biometrically linked to benefit vouchers and tracked through the Internet of Things panopticon. The price of living in this world of austerity is behavioral compliance. Stay on the pathways, or else. This is a bipartisan scheme where elected officials front for IBM, Oracle, Cisco, HP, Intel, and Qualcomm. Leaders swap out at election cycles, but the “what works” data-driven government machine stays on its destructive course, lining the pockets of Goldman Sachs and Blackstone as we get ever closer to the edge of the cliff.

But this future is not preordained; it can and will be contested. We will fight inhumanity with relationships. Our clarity is an antidote for corporate propaganda. Together we will channel our creativity and expose these sickening schemes while making provisions to care for one another with shared resources. Endorse the march, make a donation, and connect with the Poor Peoples’ Army. More information, including a #LivesOverLuxury toolkit, available here. I am planning to attend. If you are in the Philadelphia area and want more information, get in touch with me through the blog.

Prison “Reform” To Incarcerate The World: “Smart” Justice & Global Finance

Imposition of social control through brutal policing, incarceration, state supervision, exorbitant fines, and forced labor has a long, well-documented history in the United States. The ongoing harm, and devastating legacy of trauma linked to it, disproportionately affects Indigenous and Black communities, the very ones upon whose stolen land and labor this nation’s wealth has been extracted. Dismantling the prison industrial complex MUST be a priority, and yet care should be taken that we do not allow short-term “wins” to inadvertently pave the way for long-term disasters.

For the past month and a half I’ve been attempting to sort out the deep-pocketed interests behind what is being represented as prison “reform.” Many names I encountered were familiar to me from my previous education and impact investing research including the MacArthur, Ford, and Casey Foundations, Arnold Ventures, and Chan Zuckerberg. The same folks aiming to engineer the futures of preschoolers as human capital have their sights on incarcerated populations, too.

There’s actually quite a lot of overlap between communities accepting MacArthur Foundation “Safety + Justice” grants and those involved in “cradle to career” efforts implemented through Strive Together and other “collective impact” organizations. I will discuss this more in future posts, but below is a map to give you a sense of it. Use the link to the interactive version to zoom in and get a closer look.

Strive Together Safety + Justice

Interactive map of MacArthur / Strive Together Communities here.

In the impact investing space, the predator class targets the vulnerable, because that’s where the money is. With well-orchestrated PR they often come out looking like the hero. My intent is to disrupt this narrative while alerting activists to the evolving nature of state control as the grip of the Fourth Industrial Revolution tightens. Transnational global capital’s end game? In my assessment it is to digitally incarcerate the world’s poor, in part by co-opting the language of prison “reform” and data-driven “justice.”

Community As Prison

I fear that given rapid advances in the deployment of 5G and “smart” city Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, in the coming decade the criminal justice reform narrative could become inverted, flipping our present understanding of incarceration inside out. In this new paradigm, “community as prison,” one’s movement would be tied to digital identity systems interacting with sensors that can grant or deny access and privileges. This is happening in China now with social credit scoring.

Blockchain Foshan


Through augmented reality, those in power can geo-fence the world, coding it not just for the purposes of targeted advertising, but to literally engineer social systems at a massive scale. See the feature image and imagine the cattle replaced with people.

Through continued, systematic criminalization of poverty, large segments of the population could be thrust into state oversight, channeled through community courts, mental health courts, addiction courts, and any number of alternative diversion programs. Once caught in this web they become raw material, set up for data-mining by ed-tech, workforce training, tele-medicine, and tele-therapy interventions to profit self-congratulatory “social impact” investors.

Incarceration is an effective, though immoral, means by which the ruling class manages labor. See how the war on drugs and mandatory minimums fostered the development of profit-making enterprises serving prisons even as massive numbers of jobs were lost to off-shoring / globalization over the past three decades. The possibility that vast pools of surplus labor will soon be created through automation, artificial intelligence and robotics is a serious concern.

Inslee 4th Industrial Revolution Center


It’s hard to imagine what it would look like to build and maintain enough prisons and pay security forces to hold the workers made redundant by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There must be some cost-benefit analysis out there indicating with proper planning it will be cheaper and create more business opportunities to build open-air digital jails: people forced to find their own food and shelter; drones as guards; Blockchain offering a potent behavior chart, leaderboard, debt account, payment system combo.

Historically, violent policing and expansive carceral efforts have paralleled periods of economic unrest. I hope as I connect the dots between Gaza, Chancheng, Cape Town, and Austin, readers will see that international solidarity is crucial as poor and working class people around the world face off against the machine of militarized transnational global capital. We have a lot to learn from one another, especially those experiencing first hand what it’s like to live under state control.

Impact Investing And Weaponized “Reform” 

Austerity has crippled the public sector, allowing it to be commandeered by corporate interests through corrupt partnerships. Esteemed business professors, social policy researchers, foundation program officers, opportunistic government officials, and non-profit CEOs enjoying a “seat at the table” have teamed up to turn poverty into gold under the banner of “social impact.” Investors are scrambling over one another as the last dregs of profit are siphoned from the intense misery created by unbounded capitalist greed.

Philadelphia Poverty Committee Philanthropy


It is that misery that ensnares millions in judicial nightmares. The precarious nature of the gig economy, wage stagnation, impossible costs of living, and untreated trauma are leading more and more people to engage in survival tactics that run afoul of the law.

That mass incarceration is a profit-making enterprise is well known, but few realize the dangerous and exploitative nature of human capital data markets being established within the prison industrial complex. Provisions for “evidence-based” anti-recidivism interventions written into the 2018 First Step Act support these efforts.

The First Step Act Recidivism.jpg

Source: The First Step Act

This new mechanism to turn human lives into debt instruments has been made possible by recent developments in the finance and technology sectors. The pay for success schemes (PFS) linked to justice “reform” that are coming online now are branded as “progressive;” however, if one scratches below the surface, even a bit, it is easy to see they in fact double-down on neoliberal policy and open the doors to widespread data-exploitation.

Social impact bonds (SIBs) and PFS are two important items in technocracy’s poverty-mining tool kit. PFS is the term more commonly used now, though both are essentially government contracts for outsourced public services tied to performance metrics; metrics that will eventually be verified by Internet of Things sensors linked to digital identity systems. If you’re curious about the latter, do a keyword search for Vinay Gupta, Mattereum, and Internet of Agreements. Non-profits that sign on to these contracts secure funding from private investors whose profit varies depending on whether or not those serviced meet the agreed-upon “social impact” measures.

Prisons and diversion programs are easy targets for financiers and their nonprofit and higher-ed enablers. Since incarcerated people are systematically and disproportionately impoverished, traumatized, and inflicted with chronic illness and addiction, they represent a vast, relatively untapped reservoir of human capital to be transformed as financialized assets in the speculative scheme of “social impact” finance. In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded a million dollar grant to the Philadelphia police department for a “juvenile justice hub” diversion program. Bloomberg also funded the Riker’s Island social impact bond and has advanced a data-driven “what works” approach to public service delivery.

Bloomberg Hub For Justice


The data-driven framework within which services must be offered poisons the entire enterprise, engendering a culture of scarcity, stress, and perpetual surveillance. Placed on behaviorist pathways, those under state supervision will be expected to conform to the existing broken system, and through their compliance, increase their perceived asset value by delivering the “growth” data technocrats are compelled to present as evidence their interventions “work.” PFS does not offer structural change, but instead allows destructive, privatized systems to continue to wreak havoc on the lives of both service workers and those ostensibly being “served.” The structure of these deals compels individuals to jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop, their circumstances rarely materially improving, as they generate impact payments for the rich and justify the continued existence of a professional poverty management class.

If you’re new to the blog and want to know more about pay for success finance, I encourage you to read this post that describes a panel presentation I participated in at the Left Forum in July 2019 with the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign. Justin Leroy, Tim Scott, and Cameron Graham have done groundbreaking work in this area, and links to their work are available on this post along with a video I made about SIBs for those who may want to take a deeper dive.

Global Finance Calls The Shots

As is often the case, reformist language and policies advanced by think-tanks are fundamentally at odds with demands for true reform put forth by incarcerated people, their loved ones, and their communities. Organizations like the Urban Institute and the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments have been promoting broad use of PFS in the criminal justice system.

Urban Institute Pay For Success


It is my belief that in the face of rising authoritarianism, growing wealth inequality, intensifying racism, and increasing criminalization of poverty, solidifying a grassroots movement that can begin to dismantle systems of domination OUTSIDE the nonprofit industrial complex is vital. Nonprofits have been remade by Hewlett Packard through a decade of strategic grants to serve the data-driven requirements of the social impact investment sector. We must be clear. The revolution will not be funded; and it most certainly will not be funded through the venture philanthropy of the Rockefeller Foundation, Third Sector Capital Partners, or Sir Ronald Cohen.

As Tim Scott notes in his article, Resistance in the 21st Century and the Futility of Reforming Fundamentally Vicious Systems, “the state-finance nexus reaches deeply into the daily lives of billions of people across the globe…” He goes on to describe complex relationships between finance capital and authoritarian state power, a web of socio-technical control that predicts, course-corrects and integrates resistance into its treacherous operating system.

We are living in a society that attempts to normalize brutality and callousness, even as many individuals see the grave harms being done and attempt to ameliorate suffering where they can. We are dealing with a system of supposed “democracy” that rests as Scott notes in his history of common schooling “on the intersecting structures of capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and hetero-patriarchy.” That profit-taking investments in subjugated populations should be framed as benevolent undertakings comes as no surprise. And yet it is the imperative of all who strive for justice to look beyond these myths, to see the truth, and to circumvent this grotesque system where possible, finding common cause with like-minded folks who are also working to make a different future. Keeping a narrow view and ignoring the bigger picture will not serve us well in the end.

Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley’s call this November for a “People’s Justice Guarantee,” a Green New Deal for criminal justice reform, motivated me to step up my research. While Pressley’s analysis that our criminal legal system is “racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed,” is totally on point, I have grave concerns that proposals being advanced around diversion and reentry will likely become opportunities for predatory PFS deals.

IJIS Evidence Based Pay for Success

Source: Corrections Tech 2020, Trend #5 Evidence-Based Population Management, page 33.

Massachusetts, Pressley’s home state, launched a ROCA social impact bond in 2014, to provide services to judicially involved youth. Massachusetts is also home to institutions of higher education that are active players in the space. Harvard’s Kennedy School has created and incubated policies to scale many, many PFS projects within its Government Performance Lab, and MIT has refined much of the fin-tech infrastructure needed to run the predictive analytics and begin automating verification of deals. There is a sizable appetite for PFS among Massachusetts’s venture capital crowd, and there will be a terrible temptation to adopt such deals in order to fund services for those caught in the carceral web. Remember, government operates at the behest of global finance.

Alternative sentencing, diversion courts, reentry, and even restorative justice are already being targeted as profit centers for impact investing.

How to fix cash bail? Pay for success! (here)

How to pay for indigent defense? Pay for success! (here)

How to provide workforce development for ex-offenders? Pay for success! (here)

How to provide shelter for those leaving prison? Pay for success! (here)

How to address mental illness (MRT)? Pay for success! (here)

How to fund restorative community conferencing? Pay for success! (here)

It seems they are willing put a price on anything and use it as a cost-offset to profit financiers.

Pay For Success Restorative Justice 2


PFS fuels dispossession. I believe that the creation of investment markets to manage people taken into custody as “social impact” commodities will ultimately incentivize policing of Black and Brown communities and the poor and unhoused. This is why I believe the conversation around mass incarceration must ultimately turn to the abolition of incarceration and policing as we know it.

Dehumanized Data-Driven Services

I want to make it clear from the outset that I believe the vast majority of individuals on the ground working in this space are doing it for the right reasons. That said, we must acknowledge the global forces working to restructure the vast US prison system to accommodate new forms of profit taking in a world of 5g, digital surveillance, public private partnerships, and innovative finance. What many well-intentioned people may not yet grasp, because PFS programs are still fairly new, is that data-driven “smart” justice demands service providers turn the people they are trying to help into data. Data collection that serves the interests of private investors in carceral systems is fundamentally exploitative.

Thriving In An Outcomes Based Market NY SIB


Influential foundations have been seeding markets in human capital performance data for quite a few years through targeted grants to established non-profits, progressive think tanks, and professional associations. Meanwhile for-profit prison companies like CoreCivic and Geo Group are expanding “continuum of care” and reentry services, swapping guards for “social workers.”

Geo Group Continuum of Care Reentry

Tech companies have carved out new markets for their data-mining products, promising to deliver “solutions” that curb recidivism while generating profits for social impact investors. Telecommunications and cloud-based computing interests are eager to manage the petabytes of data generated by “evidence-based” interventions delivered on devices and tracked on dashboards.

IOT and Community Corrections IJIS 2017

Source: Corrections Tech 2020, Trend #5 Evidence-Based Population Management, page 12.

For a detailed overview of planned developments around prison-based technologies, e-carceration, and data management, I highly recommend devoting time to go through the IJIS Institute’s 2017 report Corrections Tech 2020: Technological Trends In Custodial and Community Corrections.

Eric Schmidt of Google/Alphabet has said data is the new oil so valuable that nation states will fight over it. We must recognize that the digital carceral systems coming online now will be rich nodes of data (profit) extraction. These emergent landscapes of control will arise from diversion, community courts, alternative sentencing, the end of cash bail, and early-release programs. What is troubling is that these reforms, which are unquestionably better than ongoing confinement, could, in a cruel twist of fate, open the door to an almost unimaginable level of community surveillance.

Inside Out Prisons: Digital Identities in Smart Cities

People on parole in the Chinese cities of Zhongshan and Foshan are being tracked for compliance in “smart” cities on Blockchain; their behaviors linked to social credit scoring. And while we may be inclined to think such a thing could never happen here, Chinese interests, including TenCent of WeChat pay that is involved in digital identity verification in China, maintains sizeable investments in US-based companies, including EPIC Games whose Unreal Engine is being set up for education and healthcare service delivery by synthetic (virtual) people.

China Blockchain ID

Interactive version of China Blockchain map here.

Tencent Digital ID Verification


Epic games unreal engine


In the coming decade we will see the rise of augmented reality (AR) worlds with integral coded layers that serve state interests. The major force behind AR is In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA. Pair Blockchain surveillance with social impact investing tied to digital identity, which is already online with the Amply app in Cape Town; throw in conditional public benefit access run through an e-wallet; maybe some social credit scoring and artificial intelligence decision-making; and suddenly we’ve upgraded to automated techno-fascism where whole swaths of impoverished cities are targeted by sweeps into diversion courts to sustain the rapacious demands of global PFS impact markets.

Blockchain Home Visits Boa Vista


In a cloud-based, one-click world controlled by transnational global capital, proofs of concept on one side of the planet can show up on the other side in short order. When the power of empire is threatened, when human beings stand in the way of resource extraction, they will be contained and/or eliminated. They’re putting unhoused people on Blockchain in Austin now. If you’re poor in a “smart” city you’re very likely going to end up being predictively profiled into pre-criminality. Far from the imagined utopias we are being sold, “smart” city futures will be built on the brutal legacies of Indian removal, the re-concentration camps of the Spanish American War, and Internment Camps of WWII.

Universal Risk Assessment Legitimizes Surveillance Culture

Risk-profiling all who come into custody became a central feature of the prison system in December 2018 when the First Step Act was signed into law. Civil rights groups including The Movement for Black Lives and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights opposed the controversial legislation, which was celebrated in other quarters as a “breakthrough” bipartisan victory. Of particular relevance to my research were concerns about the roll out of a national “Risk Assessment System,” a tool whose development was overseen by the conservative Hudson Institute, and the expansion of electronic monitoring. The baselines created by mandatory risk-screening tool will provide crucial infrastructure to inform PFS predictive analytics.

First Step Act Risk And Needs Assessment System


Prisons will look and feel different in the coming years, and we must factor that into resistance strategies. The web of corporate-state control will become less visible as e-carceration moves from clunky ankle monitors to more expansive digital “community correction” networks. While permitting more mobility for participation in assigned “pathway” programs, devices will begin to capture the data not only of those who are judicially involved, but also that of their families, neighbors, and broader social networks. We must always remember that the Internet is, at its core, a military weapon developed to serve the demands of empire (see Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley for details).

You get a sense of the expanding nature of data collection from those associated with returning citizens in this short video: “Meet Kathy.” Kathy is a “community care coordinator” whose nonprofit is paid whenever a member of Joe’s family meets a performance target on their assigned pathway. Joe’s family has been identified for pathway intervention because he was formerly incarcerated.

Reentry To What?

The brutality of carceral control will not be addressed through minor adjustments to the machine or even a major overhaul. The prison industry is undergoing a transformation framed by the “impact media” as meaningful reform. Vulture philanthropy-funded policy institutes are advancing the premise that we can use performance-based reentry contracts to right the wrongs of racial capitalism. That by carefully measuring gaps in “justice,” those in power will allow us to engineer an efficient route to a non-racist future of reconciliation. But first we need to establish cost offsets so the rich can continue to extract their PFS profit from the machine. The cost to the criminalized poor? Well that is going to be their data and their right to self-determination. That will be the price many will be compelled to pay in order to maintain an engineered life within the panopticon.

Ruthie Gilmore NY Times


I stand with Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Ruthie Gilmore in support of prison abolition, with the full awareness that the oligarchs’ plans are to make the world a prison. This is a moment that demands international solidarity. We must stand with Gaza, an early test case for biometric border control and with refugees caught in the global aid systems being used to refine biometric-enabled digital payments. We must stand with the people of Chancheng where those on parole are tracked on Blockchain for social credit scoring purposes. We must stand with the children of Cape Town, South Africa where the social capital of preschool children is being monitored on Blockchain with Amply, and with families in Boa Vista, Brazil where cash transfer recipients, the Bolsa Familia, must agree to home visit data being recorded in “digital ledgers” accompanied by digital photographic documentation for impact purposes. We must stand with unhoused folks in Austin, where presidential candidate Bloomberg’s philanthropic dollars are being used to legitimize Blockchain identity systems.

Austin Blockchain


We are witnessing the ramping up of global techno-fascism, a project the ruling class has attempted to wrap in a cloak of “social justice.” Nothing could be further from the truth. None of this is benevolent. These technologies are being advanced quietly now to suppress anticipated dissent later. Digital prisons are being coded around us. Once the masses are no longer of use as consumers, Gates, Omidyar, Zuckerberg and the rest  will flip the switch and start to farm us like domesticated livestock, as social impact securities.

Our focus now must be collective liberation. We must stand together with incarcerated people and the global poor who are are on the front lines of human capital exploitation. Ultimately, this machine is coming after everyone. We cannot sit back and watch as it unfolds, because then it will be too late. Now is the time to get organized and take stand for justice. It is time to face off against the global capitalist police state.

My dear friend T nailed it when she said to me, “Reentry to what?”

And indeed that is the question in this era of increased labor automation, militarized policing, and debt finance. Incarceration has always been fundamentally about profitably managing surplus labor through state violence. That hasn’t changed. Which is why we must keep our eyes open and be ready for the next wave. Now is the time for clarity. This system will not be reformed. Once people realize this, new doors open and together we can begin to chart a revolutionary course forward, centering community-led restorative practice and right relations among the peoples of the world.

Next Up

Topics I plan to explore in future installments include:

  • UN Sustainability Development Goal 16 and the push to measure “justice
  • How the First Step Act’s risk assessment tool will underpin PFS
  • MacArthur Foundation, Risk Profiling, Smart Cities, and Public Safety
  • How Every Student Succeeds Act and Second Chance Pell Grant Act Enable Tablet-Based Profiling and Profit-Taking
  • PFS Housing for the Formerly Incarcerated
  • Diversion Courts and SIBs in Philadelphia