Rising Use of Cities Monitoring Protests and Social Media
By Jim Vail
Massive protests rocked this country after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
In the days after the election hundreds of thousands have hit the streets, students have walked out of classes and celebrities like Lady Gaga, Mark Ruffalo and Cher were among the thousands protesting outside Trump Tower in NYC late on election night.
Meanwhile, local government and police are using social media monitoring products to probe posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube for information on those protests, and any potential threats.
According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, social media monitoring products have the capability to read, interpret, and categorize millions of posts in mere minutes, allowing users of the software to stay on top of discussions on social media in real-time and search through past posts.
Some social media monitoring products even claim they can interpret the nuances of sarcasm in posts, evaluate credibility and influence of a message, chart out relationships between social media users, recognize and create alerts based on images (including emojis), and pinpoint the movement of individuals.
“In short, social media monitoring technology provides the capability to constantly monitor and archive information on millions of people’s activities,” writes Rachel Cohn and Angie Liao in Truthout.com.
The authors write that according to a survey of police chiefs, 96.4 percent of law enforcement agencies surveyed used social media to listen and monitor.
The problem is while police say this is to monitor criminal activity, the technology can be used to monitor political and social justice movements such as the current Trump protests sweeping the country. The writers state that the police have used Geofeedia, Media Sonar and DigitalStakeout to monitor Black Lives Matter activists. During the Freddy Gray protests of 2015, Baltimore police used Geofeedia’s real-time monitoring to run social media photos through facial recognition technology.
The facial recognition technology, which Facebook uses and explains why you get notices of photos you were tagged in, can be used to discover rioters with outstanding warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd protesters.
“Investigations have revealed that some companies even marketed their services to law enforcement for monitoring of protesters,” Cohn and Liao write.
During the NATO protests several years ago in Chicago, the police arrested a number of protesters. Some were taken to the infamous Homan Square detention center where they were shackled and prevented from making a phone call. There are a number of lawsuits against the city based on this.
According to the report, some companies allow the police to create “undercover accounts,” or “targeted friend requests” that law enforcement believes the subject will accept, such as accounts depicting ‘attractive women’ or accounts purporting to be from a friend or acquaintance.
Still, while more information is detailing the growing reality of our surveillance state, very little is known about how, when and why social media monitoring technology is used by the police. Outside a freedom of information request, “there’s almost no way for the public to determine whether their local police department or sheriff’s office possesses social media monitoring software, much less obtain information on their policies regarding the use of such software,” the report states.