Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, says they just received a pile of public records from the Fresno Police Department. He says they show police have been using several different brands of social media surveillance software – all without the public’s consent.
What’s worse, Matt says, is that the “Fresno police have been using an especially offensive piece of software called MediaSonar,”.
Social media surveillance software comes in many forms, but it generally works by automatically scanning huge batches of publicly available posts on networks like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This kind of surveillance can place people under suspicion simply for speaking their mind online.
MediaSonar encourages police to identify “threats to public safety” by tracking hashtags, such as #BlackLivesMatter, or #FireDyer for that matter.
Earlier this year, activists from the ACLU chapter in Fresno sounded the alarm and brought our attention to Fresno’s use of social media surveillance software called Beware. According to news reports, Beware’s mysterious algorithm was assigning “threat levels” to residents. Local advocates wanted to learn more. So we sent a Public Records Act request to find out how Fresno police were tracking social media, and what they did with the information they gathered.
The police department sent the ACLU 88 pages of documents detailing experiments with social media surveillance software.
Matt says the documents raise a number of unanswered questions: “How many people are being surveilled? How long is their data being stored? How do these intrusive programs gather and interpret information?”
Although we still don’t know exactly how the Beware algorithm works – and neither does the Fresno Police Department, apparently – we do know that it gathers information on a person’s publicly available social media activity, and assigns them a threat level of green, yellow, or red. Marketed as a source of insight for officers on the ground, this mysterious software can label people as threats based on inaccurate information. For instance, a Fresno city council member was recently incensed to learn that Beware lists his residence at threat level yellow.
“Which brings us to MediaSonar”, he says.
Promotional materials from MediaSonar encourage the surveillance of hashtags like #blacklivesmatter, #dontshoot, and #imunarmed. In an email to Fresno Police, the company’s co-founder announced that these “keywords” could “help identify illegal activity and threats to public safety.” During the same time period that Fresno tested MediaSonar software, Black Lives Matter activists took to Fresno’s streets to call for reform.
Media Sonar says a key example of how their product has assisted their public safety clients is “identifying the sources and locations of protest events”.
Activists in Fresno are currently in court battles with the city over bogus jaywalking citations issued following street demonstrations.
Chief Dyer has been unabashed about “monitoring social media” to identify protest leaders, stating last year in the press that police would use social media to target protest organizers.
Matt Cagle continues:
Protestors shouldn’t have to wonder whether what they write online or post on social media will brand them as a threat in the eyes of law enforcement. The government shouldn’t be collecting a digital record of people’s lives. And police surveillance plans shouldn’t be rushed forward with the public left out of the loop.
As police departments across the country consider using intrusive new surveillance tools, here’s the thing to remember – we don’t have to stand for it. We have a right to determine how law enforcement acts in our communities.
And Fresno residents are right to demand reform, including the adoption of an ordinance that ensures the public has a meaningful chance to weigh in before decisions about this or any other surveillance technology are made.
Technology is changing the way we communicate and organize around powerful ideas. At the forefront of these innovations are movements like #BlackLivesMatter. While the way in which our society expresses itself is shifting, the principles of the First Amendment remain unchanged. Advances in technology are not an excuse for new forms of unaccountable surveillance.