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Police Surveilled Protests With Help From Twitter-Affiliated Startup Dataminr

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Intercept: Leveraging close ties to Twitter, controversial artificial intelligence startup Dataminr helped law enforcement digitally monitor the protests that swept the country following the killing of George Floyd, tipping off police to social media posts with the latest whereabouts and actions of demonstrators, according to documents reviewed by The Intercept and a source with direct knowledge of the matter. The monitoring seems at odds with claims from both Twitter and Dataminr that neither company would engage in or facilitate domestic surveillance following a string of 2016 controversies. Twitter, up until recently a longtime investor in Dataminr alongside the CIA, provides the company with full access to a content stream known as the “firehose” — a rare privilege among tech firms and one that lets Dataminr, recently valued at over $1.8 billion, scan every public tweet as soon as its author hits send. Both companies denied that the protest monitoring meets the definition of surveillance.

Dataminr’s Black Lives Matter protest surveillance included persistent monitoring of social media to tip off police to the locations and activities of protests, developments within specific rallies, as well as instances of alleged “looting” and other property damage. According to the source with direct knowledge of Dataminr’s protest monitoring, the company and Twitter’s past claims that they don’t condone or enable surveillance are “bullshit,” relying on a deliberately narrowed definition. “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,” this source explained. According to internal materials reviewed by The Intercept, Dataminr meticulously tracked not only ongoing protests, but kept comprehensive records of upcoming anti-police violence rallies in cities across the country to help its staff organize their monitoring efforts, including events’ expected time and starting location within those cities. A protest schedule seen by The Intercept shows Dataminr was explicitly surveilling dozens of protests big and small, from Detroit and Brooklyn to York, Pennsylvania, and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Company documents also show the firm instructed members of its staff to look for instances of “lethal force used against protesters by police or vice-versa,” “property damage,” “widespread arson or looting against government or commercial infrastructure,” “new instances of officer-involved shootings or death with potential interpretation of racial bias,” and occasions when a “violent protests spreads to new major American city.” Staff were also specifically monitoring social media for posts about “Officers involved in Floyd’s death” — all of which would be forwarded to Dataminr’s governmental customers through a service named “First Alert.” […] First Alert also scans other popular platforms like Snapchat and Facebook, the latter being particularly useful for protest organizers trying to rapidly mobilize their communities. On at least one occasion, according to MPD records, Dataminr was able to point police to a protest’s Facebook event page before it had begun.

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