The Intercept has found that Dataminr, an “official partner” of Twitter, has been collecting information on abortion protests for federal law enforcement by paying close attention to social media (not just Twitter), using collected posts to determine exactly when and where protests were about to take place, and how large they would be:
Internal emails show that the U.S. Marshals Service received regular alerts from Dataminr, a company that persistently monitors social media for corporate and government clients, about the precise time and location of both ongoing and planned abortion rights demonstrations. The emails show that Dataminr flagged the social media posts of protest organizers, participants, and bystanders, and leveraged Dataminr’s privileged access to the so-called firehose of unrestricted Twitter data to monitor constitutionally protected speech.
“This is a technique that’s ripe for abuse, but it’s not subject to either legislative or judicial oversight,” said Jennifer Granick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
The Marshals Service’s social media surveillance ingested Roe-related posts nearly as soon as they began to appear. In a typical alert, a Dataminr analyst wrote a caption summarizing the social media data in question, with a link to the original post. On May 3, 2022, the day after Politico’s explosive report on the draft decision, New York-based artist Alex Remnick tweeted about a protest planned later that day in Foley Square, a small park in downtown Manhattan surrounded by local and federal government buildings. Dataminr quickly forwarded their tweet to the Marshals. That evening, Dataminr continued to relay information about the Foley Square rally, now in full swing, with alerts like “protestors block nearby streets near Foley Square,” as well as photos of demonstrators, all gleaned from Twitter.
The following week, Dataminr alerted the Marshals when pro-abortion demonstrators assembled at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan, coinciding with a regular anti-abortion event held by the church. Between 9:06 and 9:53 that morning, the Marshals received five separate updates on the St. Patrick’s protest, including an estimated number of attendees, again based on the posts of unwitting Twitter users.
In the weeks and months that followed, the emails show that Dataminr tipped off the Marshals to dozens of protests, including many pro-abortion gatherings, from Maine to Wisconsin to Virginia, both before and during the demonstrations. Untold other protests, rallies, and exercises of the First Amendment may have been monitored by the company; in response to The Intercept’s public records request, the Marshals Service identified nearly 5,000 pages of relevant documents but only shared about 800 pages. The U.S. Marshals Service did not respond to a request for comment.
At other times, Dataminr seemed incapable of distinguishing between slang and violence. Among several tweets about the 2022 Met Gala inexplicably flagged by Dataminr, the Marshals Service was alerted to a fan account of the actor Timothée Chalamet that tweeted, “i would destroy the met gala” — an online colloquialism for something akin to stealing the show.
These alerts show that despite the claims in its marketing materials, Dataminr isn’t necessarily in the business of public safety, but rather bulk, automated scrutiny. Given the generally incendiary, keyed-up nature of social media speech, a vast number of people might potentially be treated with suspicion by police in the total absence of a criminal act.
The Marshals Service emails also show the extent to which Dataminr is drinking from far more than the Twitter firehose. The emails indicate that the agency is notified when internet users merely mention certain political figures, namely judges and state attorneys general, on Telegram channels or in the comments of news articles.