Ontario firm’s social-media monitoring software linked to racial profiling by U.S. police

Not surprising. While the underlying technology may or may not be neutral, how it is used and which terms it looks for, is not:

A London company’s software has been implicated in racial profiling by police departments in the United States and banned from Twitter.

Media Sonar has sold software to police and law-enforcement agencies, marketing it as a tool to gather data from social media to help identify threats to public safety.

But an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that police used the London-made technology to monitor such hashtags as #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed and #PoliceBrutality, to name a few.

“Law enforcement should not be using tools that treat protesters like enemies,” the ACLU, which did not have a spokesperson available to comment directly, said in a blog entry about the issue that it sent to The London Free Press.

“The utter lack of transparency, accountability and oversight is particularly troubling because social media surveillance software used by California law enforcement”Š — “Š tools like Media Sonar … — have been marketed in ways to target protesters.”

David Strucke, a partner in Media Sonar, was unavailable for comment in response to repeated Free Press phone calls and emails.

“Their software is very intelligent, tracking activities online. It is a great tool for law-enforcement agencies,” said Jaafer Haidar, a London technology observer and entrepreneur who founded Carbyn and is launching Socialseek.

“But it is not the responsibility of the technology company to police their customers. Customers have to be held responsible for how they use technology.”

The online news site Daily Dot reported that Media Sonar, from 2014 to 2016, sold the technology to 19 government services that spent at least $10,000 on the software.

The larger issue is the balance, and tension, between technology firms and law enforcement in using technology, added Haidar.

He pointed to Apple’s refusal to aid the FBI in hacking the phone of a shooter in the attack on a San Bernadino, Calif., Christmas party in 2015 that left 14 dead, and reports that BlackBerry has for years worked with police to hand over data from phone users, as proof that it’s uncharted territory.

“There is a lot of pressure on companies from government and law enforcement to use technology to survey (suspects)” Haidar said.

In an October interview with The Free Press, Strucke, chief executive of Media Sonar, described the company’s software as a “social media and online data investigation platform.”

The software tracks online actions, especially social media, and gives customers the ability to gather online and social media data and filter, analyze and search to gather information on individuals police want to keep an eye on.

Media Sonar’s software is being used by police forces in Toronto, Cleveland and Tampa Bay, and by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office, to name a few.

The company also sells to sports teams, universities and corporations for “asset and executive protection.”

In recent years, sales at Media Sonar have grown by about 300 per cent every year, on average.

“This is an ethical issue a lot of (technology) companies are facing,” Johanna Westar, a Western University professor and technology analyst, said of privacy versus security.

She draws a parallel to the police carding issue, where police stop people to gather data, frequently targeting visible minorities.

“We have to decide how technology will be used, and it is a decision we have to make as a society.”

The ACLU of California scoured “thousands of pages” of public records and found law-enforcement agencies were secretly acquiring social media spying software.

The investigation also found that police did not receive approval or permission to buy or use the software.

Social-media monitoring software — two U.S. software businesses also have been implicated and banned from social media sites — was used by police to monitor protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and rioters in Baltimore after the killing of unarmed black men by police.

“The racist implications of social-media surveillance technology are not surprising. We know that when law enforcement gets to conceal the use of surveillance technology, they also get to conceal its misuse,” said the ACLU.

“Discriminatory policing that targets communities of colour is unacceptable …Š and secretive, sophisticated surveillance technologies supersize the impact of racial profiling and abuse.”

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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