An artificial intelligence program designed to scan social media chatter and warn law enforcement of potential threats is raising the alarm for civil-rights advocates.
SocialNet, from Wyoming-based outfit ShadowDragon, pores over data from 120 different platforms— including Facebook and Instagram posts, dating app profiles, Amazon wishlists, Pornhub pages and the Dark Web — to help authorities ‘identify persons of interest and map out their networks during investigations,’ according to The Intercept.
Police in Michigan and Massachusetts are currently leasing the software, the site reports, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement purchased a license for it twice since 2019.
ShadowDragon has not publicly released much information on how SocialNet works or which police departments have leased it.
The Michigan.gov website does not indicate which precincts, if any, are using the program, but the official State of Massachusetts site indicates SocialNet was licensed this year as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods to comb social data in six regions—Boston, Lawrence, Brockton, Worcester, New Bedford and Springfield.
Michigan police also purchased OIMonitor, another ShadowDragon tool, which sends alerts in response to data captured by SocialNet, potentially predicting a crime before it occurs, akin to the movie, Minority Report.
However, critics say social-media-scanning technology creates a surveillance state that targets minorities.
‘People shouldn’t be afraid to voice their political opinions or speak out against the police themselves because they fear the police are watching them,’ Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told NBC 10 in Boston.
SocialNet from Wyoming-based ShadowDragon scours datat on more than a hundred platforms — from Facebook and Instagram posts to Amazon wishlists and Pornhub pages — to help authorities ferret out bad actors
‘Bad Guys share too much information online. Use it against them,’ reads the ShadowDragon website.
‘Like most of us, criminals enjoy the benefits of online activities and social networking. SocialNet captures these digital tracks, maps against their aliases, and explores their connections in near-real time to expedite your investigations and threat analysis.’
Nathaniel Mendell, acting U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, told NBC 10 in July that he expected the three-year, $147,870 license for SocialNet ‘will be extremely valuable’ to authorities in his state.
‘Gangs use social media to talk about their disputes and to sort out their affiliations of who’s in and who’s out,’ Mendell said.
Now police don’t have to laboriously scan through individual accounts looking for clues.
‘What used to take you a week or a month might now take you a day or a few hours,’ Mendell added.
ShadowDragon founder Daniel Clemens told DailyMail.com that the company’s software ‘can only be used with publicly available data and can’t be used to analyze private data obtained through other means.’
‘We vet every license request and carefully consider how our tools might be used, denying access when we believe specific groups are being targeted,’ Clemens added.
The ACLU’s Crockford countered that its results can be too broad and target people based on casual connections or off-handed remarks.
Civil-rights groups argues software like SocialNet will monitor and target marginalized communities and people engaged in expression protected by the First Amendment
‘Our concern is that will be done and is being done to monitor people who are engaged in political speech, First Amendment-protected speech,’ Crockford said.
ShadowDragon isn’t the only firm working with authorities to surveil social media.
In 2016, police in Baltimore used software from Chicago-based Geofeedia to monitor and respond to social chatter following protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in police custody, The New York Times reported.
According to a International Association of Chiefs of Police survey from 2017, 70 percent of police departments said they monitored social media to gather intelligence.
Some are leasing social-media surveillance software from Israeli data-analysis firm Zencity, Wired reported in July.
Zencity says it has built-in privacy safeguards, like only offering aggregate data not personal details, and it prevents authorities from tracking chatter about demonstrations and social justice movements.
ShadowDragon founder Daniel Clemens says SocialNet’s crawlers only ‘scrape information from public websites’ looking for key terms and names. ‘Nothing proprietary or private is provided to us by the platform companies.’ Pictured: the SocialNet page on the ShadowDragon website
According to Zencity’s website, it has clients in over 150 cities in the U.S. and Israel, including Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Pittsburgh.
It uses machine learning to scan chatter on social media, messaging boards, 311 calls and local news broadcasts and provides law enforcement with a tailored report about what is being said in the community.
‘If they’re going to meet at this location or that location, that’s all publicly available information, and it’s free for anyone to review,’ Douglas County, Colorado, Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who uses ZenCity, told Wired.
Programs like the ones offered by ZenCity, ShadowDragon and other data-surveillance outfits disproportionately target communities of color and ‘can lead to arrests of people on the basis of misinterpreted posts and associations,’ the Brennan Center, a liberal public-policy institute, said in a statement.
‘Very few police departments that use social media monitoring tools have made public the policies governing their use, heightening the danger of misuse and abuse.’
The Brennan Center’s Rachel Levinson-Waldman and Ángel Díaz say police should be subject to frequent audits to make sure people aren’t being targeted based on ‘race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or a person’s exercise of First Amendment freedoms.’
And police departments should be required to hold public hearings and receive approval from local government before implementing social-media surveillance, the pair said.
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu is advocating for legislation that would do just that.
‘We need to be ahead of it and not trying to deal with mishaps that happen or violations of rights after the fact,’ Wu told NBC 10.
‘We need to know when this would be deployed, what the protections are, who would be involved, and who would have the authority to push back.’