US Marshalls spied on abortion protesters using Dataminr
Internal emails reveal how Twitter's official partner monitored the whereabouts of abortion protesters.
Dataminr, an official partner of Twitter, informed a federal law enforcement agency about pro-abortion marches and rallies in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade's reversal, records obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request said.
The Marshals are the oldest law enforcement agency in the US. Today, the Marshals Service has a unique duty among federal agencies, mostly including the transportation of convicts, the pursuit of fugitives, and the protection of federal courts and judicial employees.
Internal emails indicate that the US Marshals Service received daily notifications from Dataminr, a business that continuously monitors social media for corporate and government clients, regarding the exact time and location of ongoing and scheduled abortion rights demonstrations.
A "ripe" technique for abuse
The emails demonstrate that Dataminr marked protest organizers, participants, and onlookers' social media posts and used Dataminr's unique access to the so-called firehose of unfettered Twitter data to monitor constitutionally protected speech.
Jennifer Granick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project called it a technique "ripe for abuse."
Read more: US Supreme Court overturns Roe's ruling, ending abortion rights
Mary Pat Dwyer, academic program director of Georgetown University's Institute for Technology Law and Policy, believes that the more it's made public that law enforcement is gathering up this information broadly about US residents and citizens, the more the chilling effect on whether people are willing to express themselves and attend protests and plan protests.
The Intercept got the records from April to July 2022, during a period of seismic Supreme Court news. Following the release of a draft ruling indicating that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the cornerstone of reproductive rights in the United States, pro-abortion activists conducted enormous protests and rallies around the country.
Apparently, this also happened in 2020 when The Intercept revealed that the business had monitored Black Lives Matter marches for the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder of George Floyd.
On May 3, 2022, the day following Politico's story on the draft decision, New York-based artist Alex Remnick tweeted about an upcoming demonstration in Foley Square, a tiny park in central Manhattan bordered by municipal and federal government buildings. Dataminr shared his tweet to the Marshals right away. That evening, Dataminr continued to disseminate information on the Foley Square event, which was now in full swing, with warnings such as "protestors block nearby streets near Foley Square," as well as photographs of marchers collected from Twitter.
In the following week, within less than an hour, Marshals got five consecutive updates on the St. Patrick's Day demonstration, including an anticipated number of attendees based on unknowing Twitter users' tweets.
The emails reveal that Dataminr alerted the Marshals about dozens of protests, including several pro-abortion meetings. The corporation may have tracked countless additional marches, rallies, and First Amendment exercises.
In response to The Intercept's public records request, the Marshals Service discovered roughly 5,000 pages of pertinent information but only supplied around 800 pages. A request for comment was not returned by the United States Marshals Service.
The Marshals' extensive use of social media monitoring is not the first incident of apparent mission creep in recent years: The Intercept revealed in 2021 that a Marshals-operated drone had spied on Black Lives Matter events in Washington, DC.
While some alerts came due to the proximity to courthouses or judge's homes, others were seemingly unprompted, as they were near such as the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which is a mile over from the nearest courthouse.
"I would say that a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of protests at courthouses pose any kind of risk of either property damage or personal injury," Granick asserted.
"And there's really no reason to gather information on who is going to that protest, or what their other political views are, or how they're communicating with other people who also believe in that cause," she added.
Dataminr sends out a steady stream of notifications about planned and ongoing rallies near the residences of conservative Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
At times, Dataminr seems unable to discern between slang and violence. The Marshals Service was alerted to a fan account of actor Timothée Chalamet that tweeted, "I would destroy the met gala" — an internet colloquialism for anything close to taking over the show — among numerous tweets regarding the 2022 Met Gala oddly reported by Dataminr.
These warnings demonstrate that contrary to what its marketing materials state, Dataminr is not in the business of public safety, but rather bulk, automated scrutiny. Given the often fiery, heightened character of social media communication, a large number of people might be considered with suspicion by authorities even in the absence of criminal conduct.
Many of the Dataminr notifications appear to be unrelated to US law enforcement. According to emails obtained by The Intercept, Dataminr alerted the Marshals to social media talk regarding Saudi bombings in Yemen, improvised explosive device assaults in Syria, and political protests in Argentina.
Dataminr bills itself as a "real-time AI platform," but business insiders have told The Intercept that this is mostly a marketing ploy and that human analysts do the majority of platform monitoring, combing the web for postings they believe their clients want to see.
The Twitter Firehose
The service has one technological advantage: access to the Twitter firehose. Twitter's Firehose service gives unrestricted access to the whole social network as well as the capacity to automatically search through every tweet, topic, and photo in real time for firms willing to pay for it.
"Discussions of how people view political officials governing them, discussions of constitutional rights, planning protests — that's supposed to be the most protected speech," Georgetown's Dwyer stated. "And here you have it being swept up and provided to law enforcement."
The company's cooperation with Twitter was undisrupted when Elon Musk purchased the social media site in October 2022. Despite his rage at anybody who might follow the whereabouts of his private plane, Musk does not appear to have the same reservations about providing federal authorities with the real-time locations of nonviolent demonstrators.
Third parties are prohibited by Twitter's long-standing policy from "conducting or providing surveillance or gathering intelligence" or "monitoring sensitive events". When questioned about how Dataminr's use of Twitter to monitor protests could be compliant with the policy prohibiting protest monitoring, Dataminr spokesperson Georgia Walker said in a statement that
"Dataminr supports all public sector clients with a product called First Alert which was specifically developed with input from Twitter and fully complies with Twitter's policies and the policies of all our data providers. First Alert delivers breaking news alerts enabling first responders to respond more quickly to public safety emergencies. First Alert is not permitted to be used for surveillance of any kind by First Alert users. First Alert provides a public good while ensuring maximum protections for privacy and civil liberties."
Both Twitter, which no longer has a communications staff in the Musk era, and Dataminr have disputed that the police's continuous real-time monitoring of the site constituted "surveillance" because the postings are public. Civil libertarians and state surveillance scholars generally reject their argument, pointing out that other forms of surveillance, such as security cameras pointed at the sidewalk, are common in public spaces, and that Dataminr is surfacing posts that would be difficult for police to find through a manual search.
According to Granick, "There is a world of difference between reading through some public tweets and having a service which indexes, stores, aggregates, and makes that information searchable."
In the absence of automated technologies like Dataminr, police officers would have to make decisions about how to spend their limited time sifting through the vastness of social media sites, which would likely result in a greater focus on genuine criminality rather than inconsequential political discourse, as reported by The Intercept.
"Collecting more hay," Granick expressed, "doesn't help you find the needle."