We reported recently on the new analytical software that helps cash-strapped police departments “predict” crime in order to patrol specific areas, and how this software is already helping law enforcement agencies save on manpower hours by enforcing a presence in areas where crime is more likely to occur. That sounds great, on the surface; after all, this type of analysis is based on crimes that had already occurred, resulting in less waste of taxpayer dollars and officers who are better prepared for an emergency to strike. What’s not to like about that?
But a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union has uncovered just how “predicting” software can be used to target individuals and actually interfere with citizens’ rights. Through several Freedom of Information Act-type requests, the ACLU in Fresno, California, received 88 pages of documents from the local police department that outline the use of social media surveillance software called MediaSonar to target activists. Moreover, the same software even came with recommendations of hashtags to watch with particular scrutiny.
#BlackLivesMatter was just one example, as were #dontshoot and #imunarmed. Because it’s a good idea to profile individuals as potential criminals for thinking the police shouldn’t shoot unarmed African-Americans?
Through their investigation, the ACLU also uncovered an email from the software company that actively promoted using these specific keywords to indicate a social media user’s likelihood of committing a crime. Further uses of the software also include highlighting specific addresses that should be deemed a particular “threat,” based on the homeowner’s or resident’s social media activity.
While the surface view of the tool might seem logical–as in, paying particular attention to people who post terrorist rhetoric on social media–the scope of the searching has the ACLU alarmed. Steps already being proposed include ordinances that will prevent the adoption of new technology without giving the public adequate time and voice to weigh in, and better use of transparency in how the departments operate.