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Twitter cuts ties with second firm police use to spy on social media

SnapTrends is the second intelligence firm to get cut loose by Twitter in the past two weeks.


Dell Cameron


Posted on Oct 20, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 6:21 pm CDT

Following its decision last week to suspend its data agreement with Geofeedia, Twitter has severed ties with yet another leading intelligence firm specializing in social media surveillance.

A spokesperson for Twitter confirmed on Thursday that SnapTrends, which describes its product as an “intelligence system,” will no longer have access to Twitter’s commercial user data. 

SnapTrends is an Austin, Texas-based company founded in 2012 that services police and national intelligence agencies across the country. According to a letter from SnapTrends to the Austin Police Department, circa February 2015, the company makes use of “advanced algorithms and processes” to procure a “high density social data footprint.” To prevent disclosure of its process, SnapTrends only sells its platform “direct to law enforcement agencies,” the company said.   

SnapTrends boasted about helping an unidentified police agency increase its arrest rate during a warrant roundup by 400 percent.

Twitter arrived at its decision after being reached last Friday by the Daily Dot for comment concerning a cache of internal police records, obtained through public records requests, that detail the use of SnapTrends by numerous U.S. law enforcement agencies. Twitter introduced new contract terms this year to safeguard users against surveillance.  

Earlier this month, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram severed their business relationship with Geofeedia over the way it used the social networks’ data, which echoes SnapTrends’ operation.

The Daily Dot also contacted Facebook last week about the same police records. In a statement, the company said other firms that violate its policies would lose their access.

“We terminated Geofeedia’s access to Instagram’s API and the Topic Feed API because it was using these APIs in ways that exceeded the purposes for which they were provided,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Daily Dot in an email. “We will do the same for other developers that violate our policies.”

In an email obtained by the Daily Dot—originally acquired by the North Carolina group Working Narratives—SnapTrends boasted about helping an unidentified police agency increase its arrest rate during a warrant roundup by 400 percent. “SnapTrends was used to identify the location of Suspect Entered user handles. Their goal was 100 arrests, and they made 500 arrests,” the email said.

SnapTrends is one of at least a dozen companies whose sole purpose is social media surveillance. Advocates of the software describe it as essential to law enforcement operations, while touting the platform’s ability not only to catch criminals but to prevent crime. Promotional material provided to police agencies describe the software as being used to detect online posts implying suicidal thoughts, potential threats during major public events, and to assist in search and rescue operations.

According to a SnapTrends brochure, the program was utilized in Dallas in 2013 to assess potential threats during a visit from President Barack Obama.

Critics, however, say social media monitoring is simply mass surveillance by another name. An email originating from a crime analyst in Sacramento, California, for instance, claimed the city’s police department cast a net over the entire city, capturing the social media posts of residents on a “24/7” basis.  

Social media monitoring is often portrayed as an non-invasive form of intelligence gathering because it relies on the accumulation of data already made public. But the algorithms used by programs such as SnapTrends are highly advanced and easily capable of procuring information about users they’ve not willingly surrendered—and in fact, information that users may have taken conscious steps to avoid disclosing.

For instance, by combing through previous posts geo-tagged by users, programs like SnapTrends and Geofeedia can make educated guesses about where an individual is located, even when they’ve changed their privacy settings to conceal their physical location. The programs are capable of creating unique profiles of users by combining their social media posts across more than a dozen networks. This dramatically increases the odds of identifying users’ locations; a person who enables privacy controls on Facebook, for example, may forget to do so on Instagram.

According to a July 2014 email, SnapTrends—like Geofeedia—has incorporated the use of “undercover accounts.” The feature enables police and federal law enforcement to bypass Facebook’s privacy options. A source familiar with Geofeedia’s platform said the process typically involves the use of targeted friend requests from accounts police believe the subject will be likely to accept. An example, the source said, would be accounts depicting “attractive women,” or one that appears to originate from someone known by the target.

“I believe the data given is very thorough, although Facebook does have some challenges (they have brought a new aspect if you use undercover accounts),” a crime analyst with the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department wrote in an email. “The word search and geofences work well. I have not had a lot of success in the Instagram or YouTube searches yet, I think that maybe our poor targeting of searches.”

Because social media monitoring is portrayed as vacuuming information already made public, police are not required to obtain a warrant before using SnapTrends to locate a suspect in real-time, though in many jurisdictions one would be required to gain access to such information directly from a cellphone provider. Ostensibly, there are no restrictions on how long police can store information on citizens collected through social media.

“Even though you obviously don’t need a warrant to read stuff that’s been published for the world to see, that doesn’t mean—as a policy matter—it’s a good idea for us to give our police license to engage in mass social media monitoring,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), told the Daily Dot last month.

The decision by Twitter to cut Geofeedia’s access last week was prompted by news that the company’s software was being used to monitor activists. Among the search terms used by police to gather intelligence were the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #PoliceBrutality. After the Daily Dot reported in September that the Denver Police Department was using Geofeedia, the ACLU said the program likely violated a prior agreement limiting police surveillance; the policy was instituted more than 20 years ago, after the department was caught amassing secret files on citizens who were not charged with any crime.

The Orlando Sentinel reported in April that the Orange County, Florida, school district had spent $18,000 to renew a contract with SnapTrends. School board chairman Bill Sublette told reporters the purchase was “a no-brainer.”

“I think we have a moral obligation in every sense of the word to monitor social media for threats to our students or schools,” Sublette said.

Internal police emails obtained by the Daily Dot show that crime analysts at the Henrico County Police Division in Virginia considered purchasing SnapTrends to monitor social media during the annual UCI International Bike Race, which was hosted by the city of Richmond in 2015.

SnapTrends did not return multiple requests for comment left by voicemail. 

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*First Published: Oct 20, 2016, 11:35 am CDT