Social media is an essential tool for law enforcement. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 65% of adults use social media, and 20% have a profile on at least one site. Most law enforcement agencies use social media to share information about public safety and crime alerts, but there are other ways that social media can be used to improve police operations.
Social Media Tools For Law Enforcement
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Social Media Tools For Law Enforcement
The Brennan Center filed public records requests with police departments in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., seeking information about their use of third-party social media monitoring tools. The resulting documents revealed new information about how these tools are used and the relationships between law enforcement and these third-party vendors.
Below is information on what we know about each of the companies, including their data sources, the tools’ purported capabilities, and publicly available information about the companies’ public-sector clients, as well as relevant documents acquired through the Brennan Center’s public records requests. We will update this resource if we receive additional relevant documents.
Capabilities and Data Sources: Babel Street says that its web-based platform, BabelX, can conduct cross-lingual searches for more than 200 languages and automatically translate posts to English. Babel Street also claims that BabelX can analyze sentiment in over 50 languages.
Babel Street states that its data sources include:
Over 30 social media platforms.
Proprietary third-party and customer datasets.
Billions of blogs and message boards.
Known Clients: The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had a demo with Babel Street in May 2016. In its correspondence with the LAPD, Babel Street stated that it worked with many U.S. law enforcement agencies and fusion centers.
News stories that include information about Babel Street clients:
The Department of Homeland Security reportedly used Babel Street and evaluated its products as part of its System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) Program in July 2016.
The Department of Justice granted Babel Street a $500 million Blanket Purchase Agreement in 2019.
The U.S. Military Operations Command.
The Seattle Police Department held a two-month trial of Babel Street in 2016.
Babel Street brochure
Capabilities & Data Sources: Digital Stakeout advertises that it has integrated its tools into its Scout product, which uses data from the Internet, social media, and the dark web to provide users continuous data discovery, user-defined alerts, and custom data visualizations on its platform.
In 2016, Digital Stakeout claimed that its Canvass tool had access to over 550 social networking sites in over ten categories. On its website, Digital Stakeout states it collects information from Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Disqus, and WordPress.
Known Clients: Digital Stakeout’s clients have included:
The Department of State.
The Oregon Department of Justice.
Social media sources
Capabilities & Data Sources: Skopenow claims that its tools have the capacity to:
Automatically find, extract, and analyze data from social media anonymously.
Conduct behavioral recognition analysis through image and text analysis, subject monitoring, and comprehensive search results.
Notify users via automated alerts when there are developments in a subject they are tracking.
Create interactive visualizations by merging location data from consumer reports, social media posts, and metadata.
Skopenow claims to have access to:
All major social media platforms, including Parler.
Court records through PACER.
Phone numbers, usernames, email addresses, court records, and any information available online.
Known Clients: The LAPD had a demo with Skopenow in June 2019, and multiple trials between November 2018 and July 2020. According to correspondence between the LAPD and a Skopenow representative, the company’s public sector clients included:
Broward County, FL
Martin County (state unknown)
Morristown Police Department (state unknown)
The U.S. Secret Service
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service
Skopenow public sector clients
Skopenow notification of new features
Skopenow automated alert
Email about social media investigations
Capabilities & Data Sources: Cobwebs developed a tool, Tangles, which it touts as an all-in-one investigative platform to collect, store, and analyze digital evidence. The tool’s purported capabilities include:
Real-time monitoring of posts, geo-locations, keywords, and interactions between social media users.
Analysis of sentiment in targets’ online activity.
Measurement of the strength of social media connections.
Predictive insights through their AI-powered statistical analysis.
Cobwebs claims to source its data from throughout the Internet, including social media and the deep and dark web, but does not name any specific platforms or data sources. In December 2021, Meta removed about 200 accounts operated by Cobwebs and its customers worldwide. In its investigation, Meta found that accounts used by Cobwebs’ customers participated in targeting related to law enforcement activities, as well as frequent targeting of activists, opposition politicians, and government officials.
Known Clients: According to the company, the Hartford Police Department (CT) has used its products.
Sporting Event Use Case
October 2020 LAPD proposal
Capabilities & Data Sources: The company claims that its platform can compile a full digital snapshot of an individual’s online presence, including all related personas and connections, using over 300 data sources and two billion public records.
For more general searches, Media Sonar allows users to create custom alerts to notify them of developments in topics of interest across 100,000 data sources on the Internet.
Media Sonar claims that its products can cull through these data sources — containing two billion records compiled from public records — as well as “crowd-sourced data” and more, including:
3,000 news sources.
Social media platforms, including access to Twitter (Media Sonar was banned from accessing Facebook data in 2017).
Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, and “niche blogs and forums.”
Comprehensive access to the Dark Web, including sources like TOR, i2p, and Telegram.
Known Clients: The LAPD purchased Media Sonar licenses using funds from a 2021 UASI grant.
Media Sonar presentation for the LAPD
Media Sonar white paper “Untangling the Web”
Capabilities & Data Sources: Dataminr is an AI-based platform, partly owned by Twitter, that is used to monitor and track events and topics using social media posts. The service uses an algorithm to filter through all publicly available posts made on a given day. Dataminr’s First Alert product provides users with breaking and urgent news alerts. Dataminr touts that its alerts can surface breaking news stories before any news source reports on it.
Dataminr has access to:
Social media platforms such as TikTok, Snap, and Facebook.
Twitter, through its partnership with the platform.
Message boards such as Reddit.
Known Clients: Dataminr conducted a trial with the LAPD from March to May 2016.
According to news sources, Dataminr’s clients have included:
The Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), the fusion center for Southern California
New York Police Department.
The New York City Emergency Management Department.
The Chicago Police Department.
The Louisiana State Police.
Dataminr promotional brochure
Dataminr’s answers to the LAPD’s questions
Capabilities & Data Sources: Snaptrends is a location-based social media monitoring platform that is mostly marketed to companies to measure consumer sentiment.
Snaptrends claims it has access to:
Known Clients: No public information found.
Snaptrends promotional email.
Capabilities & Data Sources: Voyager Labs (Voyager) claims its tools use traceless collection methods for social media networks, which allow a user to:
Reconstruct closed profiles and closed Facebook groups based on publicly available information.
Uncover the strength and nature of people’s connections on social media.
Identify people that are “most invested in a stance: emotionally, ideologically, and personally.”
Voyager claims that these insights are compiled by its proprietary AI technology, which doesn’t require the intervention of an analyst or investigator. Voyager also claims that its platform can instantly vet people on social media based on a user’s pre-determined set of questions.
Voyager positions itself as a social media search tool, as opposed to a tool that searches through the Internet in its entirety. Its sources include all major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, VK, TikTok, and Telegram.
Known Clients: the LAPD conducted a four-month trial of Voyager’s tools between July and November 2019. There is one purchase order for Voyager products for the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency in 2021.
Sole provider letter
Voyager Analytics User Guide
Roadmap for 2019
Presentation, “COVID-19 Outbreak: Identifying a Threat Actor”
White paper, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi shooter
Proposal for the LAPD, October 2020
Pricing proposals for the LAPD
Capabilities & Data Sources: EDGE NPD is a Polish software company that created ABTShield, a tool the company claims can monitor online narratives to unearth and track disinformation and foreign malign influence campaigns. In its pilot with the LAPD, ABTShield focused only minimally on disinformation and instead vacuumed up millions of tweets about civil unrest, American policing, election security and disinformation, potential danger, domestic extremism/white nationalism, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (because of the large Armenian population in Los Angeles). As part of the data ABTShield sent to LAPD, the tool included the usernames and geolocation data of the tweets it collected. The company did not provide the LAPD with support for its claim that its tool could track disinformation or online “bots and trolls.”
In its correspondence with the LAPD, EDGE NPD claimed its tool can:
Compile social media posts by a keyword or topic grouping.
Track specific social media handles requested by the client.
Identify bot and troll attacks.
Analyze social reactions to news and articles.
EDGE NPD claims ABTShield has access to data from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and Telegram. EDGE NPD also claims that ABTShield can track news sources, forums, and blogs, but has not provided specific details regarding these data sources.
Known Clients: The LAPD conducted a pilot of ABTShield in October and November 2020. The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw purchased licenses for ABTShield in 2020 and 2021.
Sole source provider letter
The LAPD’s requested keyword list
EDGE NPD’s additions to the keyword list
Comprehensive keyword list from the LAPD’s trial
Thank you letter from the LAPD
ABTShield data for the LAPD
how do police use social media
Nearly three-quarters of American adults are active on at least one social media platform, producing troves of detailed data about their personal, political, and religious beliefs and associations. Law enforcement’s use of this data is widespread. Some police departments use software designed to monitor large numbers of users. Police also use social media to track individuals or organizations and use undercover accounts to connect with unsuspecting users.
While the exact number of police departments engaging in social media monitoring is unknown, media reports suggest that many use social media in some capacity. This poses risks to privacy and free expression, increases disproportionate surveillance of communities of color, and can lead to arrests of people on the basis of misinterpreted posts and associations. And very few police departments that use social media monitoring tools have made public the policies governing their use, heightening the danger of misuse and abuse.
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