An analytics firm parsing Twitter data in real time for law enforcement and media has been caught funneling detailed info on anti-police-brutality marches to the very agencies users are protesting, despite promises not to.
Dataminr, a CIA-funded artificial intelligence startup that mines Twitter’s real-time content stream for behavioral patterns and other analytics, has been caught feeding info on police brutality protesters from that “firehose” stream back to law enforcement. While the developers had promised they wouldn’t enable domestic surveillance after a series of scandals in 2016, Dataminr is once again doing just that, the Intercept revealed on Thursday, slurping up Twitter data from participants in the ongoing George Floyd demonstrations and sending it to the very authorities those people are protesting.
The app was forced to promise it would not use its privileged access to Twitter data to enable domestic surveillance in 2016 after the company was caught feeding law enforcement “fusion centers” – liaison offices between federal and local police – real-time information from Twitter’s firehose. This capability, which Dataminr bragged about in its marketing materials, flagrantly violated Twitter’s own policy against weaponizing user data for surveillance purposes.
While Dataminr indeed pledged to stop providing social media surveillance capabilities to “any local, state, or federal government customer,” the company has continued to offer its “News Alert” service to law enforcement and “organizations supporting first responders.” Confronted with the fact of its surveillance of the George Floyd protests, executives have even argued that Dataminr’s surveillance of protests is actually keeping demonstrators safe, claiming its Big Brotheresque snooping “helps magnify [protesters’] voice[s].”
However, an inside source who spoke to the Intercept confirmed Dataminr’s biggest clients remain local police departments hungry for data on protesters, adding that the app has “relayed tweets and other social media content about the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests directly to police, apparently across the country,” using its “privileged access to Twitter data” – never mind that its terms of service stipulations barred any of the platform’s software partners from “tracking, alerting, or monitoring sensitive events (such as protests, rallies, or community organizing meetings).”
Indeed, the FBI even signed an “expedited agreement” to expand its relationship with Dataminr last month, piling on to an existing $1 million contract. A spokesperson for the app insists it has only provided the FBI with “First Alert, a product that delivers breaking news alerts on emergency events, such as natural disasters, fires, explosions, and shootings.”
However, it’s unclear how the sort of information that might come over a 911 scanner would be worth $1 million to the top US domestic law enforcement agency. Tweets like “Protesters seen sitting on street in front of security officers in Oakdale, MN” wouldn’t seem to have any immediate utility for first responders or any other emergency services, for example, yet these found their way to the Minneapolis Police Department with the help of Dataminr. And the app’s surveillance of Black Lives Matter went far beyond basic after-the-fact data about the protests, the Intercept’s sources confirmed, calling Dataminr’s and Twitter’s claims they don’t enable domestic surveillance “bulls**t.”
“It’s true Dataminr doesn’t specifically track protesters and activists individually, but at the request of the police they are tracking protests, and therefore protesters,” the source told the outlet. Nor did Dataminr limit its surveillance to real-time monitoring – it allegedly kept “comprehensive records of upcoming anti-police violence rallies” in cities nationwide so as to allot adequate staff for monitoring the demonstrations as they unfolded. At any given time, the Intercept claims, Dataminr would be “explicitly surveiling dozens of protests big and small.”
The cognitive dissonance hasn’t been lost on Dataminr employees – the source passed on a recording of a staff meeting in which a manager attempted to draw a distinction between “relaying data to the police” and “surveillance.” Police could “respond more quickly and save lives” when given “situational awareness through real time events.” Translation? Big Brother is just trying to help.