[News] Police Surveilled George Floyd Protests With Help From Twitter-Affiliated Startup Dataminr

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 10 11:48:22 EDT 2020

Surveilled George Floyd Protests With Help From Twitter-Affiliated Startup
Sam Biddle - July 9, 2020

*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
A History of Police Work

Dataminr helps newsrooms, corporations, and governments around the world
track crises with superhuman speed as they unfold across social media and
the wider web. Through a combination of people and software, the company
alerts organizations to chatter around global crises — wars, shootings,
riots, disasters, and so forth — so that they’ll have a competitive edge as
news is breaking. But the meaning of that competitive edge, the
supercharged ability to filter out important events from the noise of
hundreds of millions of tweets and posts across social media, will vary
drastically based on the customer; the agenda of a newspaper using Dataminr
to inform its breaking news coverage won’t be the same as the agendas of a
bank or the FBI. It’s this latter category of Dataminr’s business,
lucrative government work, that’s had the firm on the defensive in recent

In 2016, Twitter was forced to reckon with multiple reports that its
platform was being used to enable domestic surveillance, including a Wall
Street Journal report on Dataminr’s collaboration with American spy agencies
May; an American Civil Liberties Union report on Geofeedia
a Dataminr competitor, in October; and another ACLU investigation
into Dataminr’s federal police surveillance work in December. The company
sought to assure the public that attempts to monitor its users for purposes
of surveillance were strictly forbidden under its rules, and that any
violators would be kicked off the platform. For example, then-VP Chris
Moody wrote
in a company blog post that “using Twitter’s Public APIs or data products
to track or profile protesters and activists is absolutely unacceptable and
prohibited.” In a letter
<http://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161212_twitter_letter_to_aclu.pdf> to the
ACLU, Twitter public policy chief Colin Crowell similarly wrote that “the
use of Twitter data for surveillance is strictly prohibited” and that
“Datatminr’s product does not provide any government customers with … any
form of surveillance.”

Twitter also said that Dataminr, one of its “official partners
<https://partners.twitter.com/en/partners/dataminr>,” would “no longer
support direct access by fusion centers
<http://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161212_twitter_letter_to_aclu.pdf>” to
information such as tweet locations; fusion centers are controversial
facilities dedicated to sharing intelligence between the federal government
and local police. Dataminr at the same time announced it would no longer
provide a product for conducting geospatial analysis “to those supporting
first reponse
<http://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161212_twitter_letter_to_aclu.pdf>” and added
that such clients did not have “direct firehose access.”

But based on interviews, public records requests, and company documents
reviewed by The Intercept, Dataminr continues to enable what is essentially
surveillance by U.S. law enforcement entities, contradicting its earlier
assurances to the contrary, even if it remains within some of the narrow
technical boundaries it outlined four years ago, like not providing direct
firehose access, tweet geolocations, or certain access to fusion centers.

Dataminr relayed tweets and other social media content about the George
Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests directly to police, apparently across
the country. In so doing, it used to great effect its privileged access to
Twitter data — despite current terms of service
that explicitly bar software developers “from tracking, alerting, or
monitoring sensitive events (such as protests, rallies, or community
organizing meetings)” via Twitter.

And despite Dataminr’s claims that its law enforcement service merely
“delivers breaking news alerts on emergency events, such as natural
disasters, fires, explosions and shootings,” as a company spokesperson told
The Intercept for a previous report
the company has facilitated the surveillance of recent protests, including
nonviolent activity, siphoning vast amounts of social media data from
across the web and converting it into tidy police intelligence packages.
Keeping an Eye on Peaceful Protests

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.

“At the request of the police they are tracking protests, and therefore

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.”

The Dataminr documents on protest monitoring seen by The Intercept do not
specify if they are used for news clients, police clients, or both. But a
Dataminr document from October 2019 listed within the company’s “law
enforcement footprint” the New York Police Department, Los Angeles Police
Department, Chicago Police Department, and Louisiana State Police. The LAPD
told The Intercept it conducted a trial of Dataminr but chose not to enter
a contract and did not use the system in connection with BLM protests. The
Louisiana State Police declined to comment, citing a state secrecy law.
NYPD did not comment and CPD could not be reached for comment. In January
2019, a New York court ordered the NYPD
to turn over records about its use of Dataminr resulting from a New York
Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over alleged surveillance of Black Lives
Matter activists.

“Dataminr is providing information for local police, including [many]
metropolitan police departments in cities facing protests,” the source
said. “They are some of Dataminr’s biggest clients and they set the
agenda.” Dataminr spokesperson Kerry McGee declined to comment on the
company’s clientele.

And Dataminr alert emails sent to the Minneapolis Police Department,
obtained via a public records request, show the company collected, bundled,
and captioned Twitter content relevant to the anti-police brutality
protests and forwarded it directly to police as these events unfolded,
including information on apparently nonviolent protests. The emails show
Dataminr relaying the locations and images of Black Lives Matter protesters
in the city where George Floyd lived and was killed, and where the
nationwide wave of outrage against police abuse was launched, a fact
difficult to square with the company’s claim that it doesn’t provide its
governmental customers with “any form of surveillance.” The location
information in the alerts underline that while Dataminr may not technically
have direct access to the geolocational data attached to many tweets by
Twitter, the texts and images of the tweets relayed to the police often
contain overt geographical references, or have such references added
manually by Dataminr staff.

While some of the alerts are sourced from the tweets of local and national
news reporters, many are attributed to the accounts of ordinary bystanders
— what the system calls “eyewitnesses” — who were either watching or
attending the rallies and tweeting in a completely personal capacity. In
one First Alert message relayed to the MPD on May 31, six days after
Floyd’s murder, Dataminr alerted police to a tweet reading “peaceful
protest outside US Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis. End racism. End
police brutality. End inequality and inequities. #JusticeForFloyd
#Minneapolisprotest #BlackLivesMatters,” along with a photo snapped by the
tweeter. The accompanying caption, provided by Dataminr’s human staff,
specified that this group of protesters had been “seen at US Bank Stadium
on 400 block of Chicago Avenue.” Another First Alert notification sent to
the MPD three days prior tipped off police to this supposed public safety
threat: “Protesters seen sitting on street in front of security officers in
Oakdale, MN.” Another monitored tweet and accompanying photo relayed to MPD
by Dataminr reads, simply, “Peaceful protest at Lake & Lyndale.”

A tweet and photo relayed to Minneapolis police reads, simply, “Peaceful
protest at Lake & Lyndale.”

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.

Some of Dataminr’s alerts passed along dubious information. For example, on
May 28, the company passed along a discredited claim about billionaire
philanthropist George Soros, informing the MPD that “Commentator Candace
Owens claims Minneapolis, MN chief of police says many protesters are not
from the city and claims investor George Soros is funding protesters
through Open Society Foundation.”
Surveillance as a Public Service

This apparently glaring contradiction by Dataminr, still publicly claiming
it would never engage in surveillance while simultaneously facilitating the
surveillance of  protests, hasn’t been lost on the company’s staff. At a
virtual staff meeting in June, a recording of which was obtained by The
Intercept, a Dataminr manager attempted to explain why the company’s
persistent monitoring of First Amendment activity on behalf of the police
was not, in fact, surveillance. The manager, identified by the source as
executive vice president Jason Wilcox, granted that there were likely
Dataminr staff pondering some difficult questions: “How does our
technology, how does our company, how does our platform, play in these
types of unfolding events that are out there?” — an allusion to the
nationwide protests that were by then in their heady first week. “We sell
to law enforcement. What does that mean?” Wilcox’s defense of Dataminr was
based mostly on a sort of linguistic distinction: that relaying data to the
police isn’t a form of surveillance, but a form of ideologically neutral
newsgathering. In an alternate euphemism, Wilcox described the surveillance
alerts forwarded to police as “situational awareness through real time
events, [in] many of which people’s lives are at stake, and they can
respond more quickly and save lives.”

This is generally the same reason Twitter and Dataminr’s PR teams describe
this governmental product as a source of “news alerts,” not intelligence —
a rationale that largely obscures the major differences between what, say,
a newspaper might do with rapidly updated information about a protest
against policing versus what the police might want to do with that same

Wilcox added that Dataminr’s protest surveillance, far from presenting any
chilling effect on political expression or free assembly, was a force of
progressivism and reform: “We alert on events where members of law
enforcement overstep their bounds,” Wilcox claimed. “We found abuse of
power. … Ultimately what we’re doing is we’re providing a check and balance
for [police]. … Those alerts provide context to the world keeping people
safe, and enabling people to do so in a way that isn’t about trying to
invade user privacy, but quite the opposite. It helps magnify their voice.”

Asked about the comments, Dataminr’s McGee wrote, “Dataminr does not
comment on internal company meetings.” Wilcox did not respond to a request
for comment.

Wilcox also defended Dataminr’s work with police by emphasizing the firm’s
close ties to Twitter, the great firehose benefactor, which, according to
Wilcox, “is often one of the first social media platforms to reach out and
protect privacy, they seem to be most attuned to it, they’re very concerned
with ensuring that their platform is not misused.”

“Those alerts provide context to the world, keeping people safe.”

Dataminr’s internal justification of its work for police also rested in
part on the argument that it’s not as nefarious as it could be: “We look at
lots of different companies leveraging social media, and they have often,
not everyone, but often, a very different set of goals,” Wilcox explained.
“Their goal is to help with surveillance. They build users graphs, they
track users as they go across different social media platforms, they follow
what a person says over time. And we do not do that.” Wilcox named a few
other mechanisms he said showed how he’d “worked hard to ensure that our
technology cannot be casually misused here,” namely built-in limits on what
keywords police can use to tailor their “news alerts.”

But according to the source with direct knowledge of Dataminr’s protest
monitoring, this is misleading: There’s nothing built into First Alert that
would prevent police from filtering or manually searching the intelligence
they receive from Dataminr for specific terms, such as “#BLM” or “antifa
<https://theintercept.com/2020/06/09/antifa-fbi-tweet/>.” Once a protest
tweet is run through Dataminr’s system and spit out the other end into a
police department’s inboxes, in other words, Dataminr loses control over
how the information is used. This image of technological restraint also
differs considerably from the pitch Dataminr gives police. An apparent 2019
Dataminr slide deck from a company presentation to the FBI, included in a
recent online data dump known as “BlueLeaks
stated that “Dataminr’s mission is to integrate all publicly available data
signals to create the dominant information discovery platform,” and touted
a client’s ability to customize “user-defined criteria” for alerts like
“topic selection” and “geographic filters.” The end goal: “Reduce the time
between an event and client action.”
Surveillance or “News Alerts”?

When asked about Dataminr’s work with law enforcement as outlined above,
both Twitter and Dataminr adopted a similar defense: This isn’t
surveillance because we have a policy against surveillance, which therefore
means we don’t engage in surveillance. Neither firm would comment or
discuss how exactly the above does not meet the definition of surveillance,
nor would they provide the institutional definitions of such as defined by
either company.

“We see a societal benefit in public Twitter data being used for news
alerting, first responder support, and disaster relief,” said Twitter
spokesperson Lindsay McCallum, who added that Dataminr’s First Alert tool
“is in compliance with our developer policy” banning surveillance. “First
Alert is not permitted to be used for surveillance of any kind by First
Alert users,” Dataminr’s McGee told The Intercept. In response to a
screenshot copy of the tweet Dataminr forwarded to Minneapolis police
regarding the exact location of a group of protesters, McGee claimed that
this was flagged for the department because it showed traffic problems, not
protesters. “Alerts on an intersection being blocked are news alerts, not
monitoring protests or surveillance,” said McGee. “A local news
organization would also cover major intersections being blocked as a news
story — this is not surveillance.”

But to some surveillance scholars, legal experts, and activists, there’s
little doubt about what Dataminr is up to, and what Twitter is enabling, no
matter what careful terminology they use. According to Brandi
Collins-Dexter, a campaign director with the civil rights group Color of
Change, Dataminr’s practices are an example of “if it walks like a duck and
talks like a duck,” with regards to surveillance. “We know that law
enforcement agencies spend a breathtaking amount of money to aggressively
track, target, and surveil Black communities,” said Collins-Dexter.
“Twitter can’t have it both ways, courting Black activists and marketing
themselves as the pre-eminent tool for organizing against injustice, while
turning a blind eye to the number of companies that are contracting with
them for the clear intent of surveillance.”

“Twitter can’t have it both ways, courting Black activists and marketing
themselves as the pre-eminent tool for organizing against injustice, while
turning a blind eye to companies that are contracting with them for the
clear intent of surveillance.”

Steven Renderos, the executive director of civil rights group MediaJustice,
echoed this sentiment. “It’s troubling that that Dataminr is providing
services to police and it’s flawed logic to think there’s no harm in
turning over Twitter posts to cops,” said Renderos. “The police have a
history of using social media to track Black activists.
Dataminr’s practices is just the latest example of how tech companies are
fueling racist policing in the United States.”

“If Dataminr is sharing posts about demonstrations and protesters with
police, that would be incredibly concerning and it would be difficult to
understand how that practice doesn’t facilitate police surveillance in
violation of Twitter’s own policies,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the
ACLU of Northern California. “Social networks like Twitter need to protect
users and ensure that developers are not sharing their First Amendment
expression with law enforcement agencies, a practice that potentially
exposes people — particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color — to
further surveillance and state violence.”

Andrew Ferguson, a visiting law professor at American University, rejected
the companies’ contention that because Dataminr only ingests public tweets,
the system is only capable of news gathering — as if police snapping
pictures of demonstrators would be better understood as photojournalism,
not photo surveillance. “Monitoring activities and forwarding information
to police is clearly surveillance,” explained Ferguson, author of “The Rise
of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law
Enforcement.” “If the police were a data-based advertising company we would
say this was consumer surveillance. If the police were tracking protestors
directly we would call it government surveillance. A forwarding of the same
information and calling it ‘news’ is still surveillance.”

Whether Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users will buy the argument that
automatically relaying tweets to the police is mere innocent newsgathering
remains an open question, but for most of them a moot one: Outside of
laborious public records requests, it’s hard to imagine how someone could
learn if their protest tweets were swallowed into the algorithms by a
government contractor. Or, one could think of it the way Jason Wilcox urged
his staff: “All those voices, where we get to amplify that for everybody. …
It’s pretty impressive. It’s an amazing event.”
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