Increasing use of social media as a surveillance tool for law enforcement was dealt a blow this week after a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Twitter stopped passing along user data to federal law enforcement agencies across the country.
The pullback means Twitter will not allow its subsidiary Dataminr to sell user data that has been used for surveillance purposes by federal law enforcement.
The Dec. 12 letter from Twitter to the ACLU of California promising to stop the practice was prompted by the discovery that Dataminr, a data mining company, was selling its social media surveillance software to a federal data collection center in Los Angeles.
It’s all part of a trend of increasing social media and technological surveillance by law enforcement that troubles the ACLU because there is little oversight or public debate.
The ACLU came upon that information after it surfaced that the Fresno Police Department was using social media surveillance software, MediaSonar. That discovery prompted the ACLU’s wider look at the trend, which found that 21 of 52 large law enforcement agencies in the state were using such software, including in San Francisco.
“Technology has advanced exponentially in the past decade and laws and policies have not kept pace. It’s become much easier for the government to be able to collect vast amounts of info and monitor people,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberty policy director of ACLU of California.
In San Francisco, the District Attorney’s Office has used a social media surveillance tool since 2015 and the Police Department has facial recognition capability through ABIS, or the Automatic Biometric Identification System, since 2010.
While the San Francisco police have used social media accounts against suspects in a number of cases, they do not have software meant to collect such information in bulk, according the ACLU.
“It sounds like it has the potential for abuse,” said Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus, who noted that anything that can track people needs to be watched closely.
But the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office does have such software.
“There’s been no public debate about it and no one provided us policies, including the SF District Attorney,” said Ozer. “The fact that the SFDA has had powerful social media surveillance for more than two years and there has been no transparency or oversight is a very big problem.”
The District Attorney Office’s tool, X1 Social Discovery, uses open source data to surveil a broad scope of internet activity from social media to YouTube by collecting “vital metadata in a legally defensible manner [that] preserves the chain of custody,” noted the company’s website.
X1 Social Discovery can be used by anyone if they are willing to pay for it.
Still, the tool allows anonymous social media following and tracking public accounts, according to the company. It also gives users metadata like time and location.
District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Alex Bastian said the main purpose of the tool is to locate human trafficking victims. But he played down the $2,400 software’s capabilities, noting that it only uses open source data and is available to members of the public.
“We can only access public information or if someone gives us consent, or by getting a court order,” Bastian said.
But other tools discovered by the ACLU, such as Dataminr and Geofeedia, were far more powerful and solely marketed to be used by law enforcement. Those programs have laser-focused surveillance capabilities.
“You could get a search done of all of the public tweets and up to 30 days of [someone’s] tweets. You could drill down on a geographical area, like a place where protest was going on. You could target types of users, like journalists, which was a choice,” said Ozer.
A partially redacted March 2016 email from Dataminr to the Los Angeles federal fusion center, which was obtained by the ACLU, showed how Twitter data could be used as a surveillance tool.
“Dataminr is excited to announce the release of our Geospatial Analysis Application. Users can visualize real-time and historical events across the entire public Twitter dataset through our enhanced geospatial capability,” reads part of the letter.
But Twitter’s letter to the ACLU put an end to that practice at all 77 federal fusion centers, six of which are in California. Fusion centers are described by the ACLU as federally-run domestic spy centers that collect local, state and federal data and have a record of “sweeping in constitutionally protected political, religious and artistic activity.”
“In light of these concerns, Dataminr will no longer support direct access by fusion centers, and has informed us that any accounts accessible by fusion center email addresses have been notified that their access is now terminated. Dataminr news alerts (and only news alerts) will still be directly available to law enforcement and other organizations that support first response, subject to Dataminr and Twitter policies,” wrote Twitter spokesperson Colin Crowell in a Dec. 12 letter to the ACLU.
Dataminr also made a statement about its commitment to civil liberty protection, and described what it will give to law enforcement now, which is basically news alerts based on public tweets.
“Dataminr’s product does not provide any government customers with their own direct firehose access or features to export data; the ability to search raw historical tweet archives or to target or profile users; conduct geospatial analysis; or any form of surveillance.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version.