This AI helps police monitor social media. Is it going too far?


Since 2016, civil freedoms groups have sounded the alarm bells about online monitoring of social media chats by city officials and police departments. Services like Media Sonar, Social Sentinel, and Geofeedia analyze online conversations, giving police and city officials clues as to what hundreds of thousands of users are saying online.

Zencity, an Israeli data analytics company that serves 200 agencies across the United States, is promoting itself as a less invasive alternative because it only offers aggregate data and prohibits targeted monitoring of protests. Cities like Phoenix, New Orleans and Pittsburgh say they are using the service to fight disinformation and gauge public reaction to topics such as social distancing enforcement or traffic laws.

Speaking to WIRED, CEO Eyal Feder-Levy describes the service’s built-in privacy guarantees, such as writing personal information, as a new approach to community engagement. Still, local officials who use Zencity describe a variety of new and potentially alarming uses for the tool, which some cities are using without a public approval process, often via free trials.

Brandon Talsma, a supervisor in Jasper County, Iowa, describes 72 intense hours last September that started with a warning from Zencity. His office had only been using the tool for a few months when Zencity analysts noticed a sudden increase in social media talk about Jasper County following reports of a gruesome murder.

A 44-year-old black man living in the town of Grinnell, who is 92 percent white, was found dead in a ditch, his body wrapped in blankets and set on fire. Early reports focused on the grim details, and rumors spread that the man had been lynched by residents of Grinnell.

“We are a small county; we have very limited assets and resources, ”Talsma said. “He had the recipe for getting very ugly. “

Zencity noted that almost none of the online conversations originated from Iowa. Talsma’s team feared rumors would snowball and become the type of misinformation that causes violence. Talsma said the team ignored the racial lens until Zencity warned them about the online chat.

Police said the murder was not racially motivated and called a press conference in which Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews supported that conclusion. Police have since identified and charged four suspects, three white men and a white woman, in connection with the case.

Zencity creates custom reports for city authorities and law enforcement, using machine learning to analyze public conversations from social media, message boards, local newsletters and 311 calls, offering thus promising information about how residents react to a particular topic. Companies like Meltwater and Brandwatch similarly track keyword phrases for corporate clients, but don’t prevent users from seeing individual profiles.

This has been a powerful tool for local law enforcement agencies across the country, which continues to respond to the national debate on police reform as well as a recent spike in crime in major cities.

As long as the critics have these discussions on a public channel, Zencity can pick up and report on what they are saying. He doesn’t have full access to the “fire hose” of everything discussed on Facebook and Twitter, but he constantly does custom searches on social media platforms to examine and weigh feelings.

“If they’re going to meet at this place or place, that’s all publicly available information, and anyone can view it for free,” said Sheriff Tony Spurlock in Douglas County, Colorado, south of. Denver. He says the sheriff’s office has been using the tool for about a year, signing a contract for $ 72,000 in early 2021. The tool provides aggregate information and does not identify individual users.

Agencies are warned of prohibited uses, says Feder-Levy. He says the software alerts the company if customers are using the service to target individuals or groups, as has happened elsewhere. In 2016, for example, the Baltimore Police followed phrases like #MuslimLivesMatter, #DontShoot, and #PoliceBrutality.

Spurlock says the software came in handy after prosecutors in April concluded that two officers were justified in shooting a man last December. The details of the shooting are complex: The man was armed with a knife, but had suffered from bipolar depression for years and called 911 himself. Dispatch told officers they were responding to a call. urgent for domestic violence, but the man’s wife describes the call as a welfare check and says the police dismissed him almost immediately after his arrival.

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