Twitter has blocked access to a tool that the police use to monitor the social network for protest-specific keywords. The real-time surveillance monitored users of the micro-blogging social media network to build a map of protest-related activities. Essentially, Twitter has severed ties with a social network surveillance firm that offered these tools using the data mined from the platform.
Twitter has terminated access to its user data for Media Sonar, a company that made and marketed tools to U.S. police departments. The Canadian company peddled its service for thousands of dollars. The service promised to help police “identify illegal activity and threats to public safety by flagging keywords referencing drugs, bullying, and prostitution.”
While the intentions of the company might appear noble, the company’s platform was majorly being used by law enforcement officials to access the real-time maps created by the company’s software based on social media activity in protest areas. These maps may have been used to identify, and in some cases perhaps arrest, protestors shortly after their posts became public.
Twitter cited company policies intended to safeguard users against the surreptitious collection of data by law enforcement agencies for cutting off ties with Media Sonar. This would be third company Twitter has severed ties with. Recently, the social media platform had nullified the commercial data agreements of two other leading social network surveillance firms, Geofeedia and Snaptrends. According to a recently published investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, these companies offered tools that were used to monitor unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It is also alleged that after the protests escalated, police and Geofeedia representatives increased their surveillance. It is also believed that the company might have ran several raw photos, captured and shared on the social media platform, through facial recognition systems to locate protestors with outstanding warrants.
In Media Sonar’s case, Twitter alleged the data collated by the company was being used for spying and surveillance activities, which is a violation of the service’s developer agreement. Founded in 2012, the company has sold surveillance software to police departments across the United States. According to documents acquired under state open-records laws, about 19 local government services are known to have each spent at least $10,000 on the software between 2014 and 2016, reported The Daily Dot.
Twitter confirmed it had terminated Media Sonar’s access to its public API in October. As an added measure, Twitter noted that if the company attempts to create other API keys “we will terminate those as well and take further action as appropriate.”
Media Sonar, and many companies like it, builds profiles of social media users based on their posts’ content, links, and context, reported Fortune. However, the keywords that some of the sub-platforms or software used strongly suggests the company was assisting police departments to specifically monitor the activities of African-American activists. A report by the ACLU included flagged terms like “policebrutality,” “Dissent,” and “justiceformike,” a reference to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. These keywords were repeatedly used to spark widespread protests across the country. The report claimed social media monitoring was “part of a pattern of unchecked surveillance” that “risks targeting communities that are already vulnerable to police misconduct.”
Shockingly, #blacklivesmatter, #imunarmed, and #iammikebrown have been used in Media Sonar’s promotional material. The company’s website maintains it is a data-mining intelligence platform. However, it does not specify that a large portion of its clientele is law enforcement agencies and U.S police departments.
U.S. Police agencies may have collectively spent millions to acquire and use geo-specific data accumulated by so-called “social media monitoring” firms. The law enforcement agencies insist these platforms have played a significant role in how they have responded to crime, identifying locations associated with drug networks, and identifying witnesses, in addition to improving disaster response and the protection of visiting dignitaries. However, it is apparent these platforms are regularly used to conduct surveillance on protestors.
[Featured Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]