This AI Helps Police Monitor Social Media. Does it go too far?


Since 2016, civil freedom groups they sounded the alarm look up online surveillance social media chats by city officials and police departments Services such as Media Sonar, Social Sentinel and Geofeedia analyze online conversations, instilling in police and city leaders what hundreds of thousands say of online users.

Zencity, an Israeli data analytics firm serving 200 agencies in the United States, is selling itself as a less invasive alternative because it offers only aggregate data and prohibits targeted surveillance of protests. Cities like Phoenix, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh say they use the service to fight misinformation and measure public reaction to issues such as enforcing social distance or traffic laws.

Speaking to WIRED, CEO Eyal Feder-Levy described the integrated safeguards of the service’s privacy, such as the redaction of personal information, as a new approach to community engagement. However, local officials using Zencity describe a variety of new and potentially alarming uses for the tool, which some cities use without a public approval process, often through free trials.

Brandon Talsma, a county supervisor in Jasper County, Iowa, described 72 intense hours last September that began with a warning from Zencity. His office had been using the tool for just a few months when Zencity analysts noticed a sudden increase in social media chats about Jasper County following news of a terrible killing.

A 44-year-old man living in the town of Grinnell, which is 92% white, had been found dead in a ditch, his body wrapped in blankets and lying down. Early news reports focused on the sad details, and rumors spread that the man had been lynched by Grinnell residents.

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

Zencity noted that almost none of the online chats originated in Iowa. Talsma’s team was afraid that the rumors might snowball into the kind of misinformation that causes violence. Talsma said the team had not considered racial optics until Zencity warned them of the online discussion.


Police say the killing was not racially motivated, and they called a press conference at which the NAACP president of Iowa-Nebraska Betty Andrews he supported that finding. Then police identified and charged him four suspects, three white men and a white woman, in connection with the case.

Zencity creates customized reports for city officials and law enforcement, using automatic learning to scan public conversations from social media, message boards, local news reports, and 311 calls, promising insight into how residents respond to a particular topic. Companies like Meltwater and Brandwatch similarly follow key phrases for corporate customers, but they don’t prevent users from seeing individual profiles.

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

As long as critics have had these discussions on a public channel, Zencity can pick up and produce reports on what they say. He doesn’t have full access to the “fire mango” of everything discussed on Facebook and Twitter, but he constantly does personalized searches of social media platforms to examine and weigh the sentiment.

“If they’re going to meet at this place or that place, that’s all publicly available information, and it’s free for anyone to review,” explains 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 one $ 72,000 contract at the beginning of 2021. The tool provides aggregate information and does not identify individual users.

Feder-Levy says agencies are being warned about prohibited uses. He says the software alerts the company if customers use the service to target individuals or groups, as happened elsewhere. In 2016, for example, the Baltimore police sentences traced as #MuslimLivesMatter, #DontShoot, and #PoliceBrutality.

Spurlock says the software was useful after prosecutors in April concluded 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 struggled for years with bipolar depression and called himself 911. Dispatch told officers responding to an urgent domestic violence call, but the man’s wife describes the call as a welfare check and says police fired almost immediately after her arrival.

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