Police & schools are spying on your Tweets & social media activity


A teenager who claimed “sarcasm” after talking on Facebook about shooting up a kindergarten spent months in jail this year for making a “terroristic threat.” Over the summer, Instagram photos of guns and money led to New York City’s largest gun bust ever. A mom’s Facebook photo of her baby with a bong led to her 2010 arrest. 

While criminals — or those guilty of ill-placed sarcasm — aren’t wising up about social media oversharing, tools for monitoring Americans online are increasingly accessible and affordable to authorities, no NSA-level clearance required. Those in charge are monitoring more and more and social networks are happy to comply, especially where extra revenue is involved.  

If you share something publicly on social media, “you should expect the world to read it,” said Andy Sellars, a staff attorney at the Digital Media Law Project. “And you should expect that world to include law enforcement.”

Expect, in fact, anybody — now more than ever. Beyond the feds, marketers and cops, there is a growing customer base for Internet-monitoring contractors who sift through personal details readily available on the Internet. Recently, some schools began enlisting these services to follow students on social media and monitor for cyberbullying, and eventually others will catch on.

We may very well face a future where algorithms bust people en masse for referencing illegal “Game of Thrones” downloads, or run sweeps for insurance companies seeking non-smokers confessing to lapsing back into the habit. Instead of that one guy getting busted for a lame joke misinterpreted as a real threat, the new software has the potential to roll, Terminator-style, targeting every social media user with a shameful confession or questionable sense of humor.

The tools are getting better because there are more ways to get at the flood of data. As Twitter heads towards its IPO, the micro-messaging service is making its exclusive “firehose” of data available (for an undisclosed fee) to a growing number of third parties. While basic (and free) Twitter searches provide a limited amount of results, the Twitter firehose — previously open to only the likes of search engines such as Google and Bing — blasts everything publicly available on Twitter … in real time.

While this firehose is valuable to marketers, data consulting firm BrightPlanet found a way to make it valuable (and affordable) to police departments. For only $150 a month, BrightPlanet’s “BlueJay Law Enforcement Twitter Crime Scanner” allows cops to conduct very specific searches within the Twitter firehose.

“Monitor large public events, social unrest, gang communications and criminally predicated individuals,” suggests the online pamphlet for the BlueJay browser tool, which reads like a mission statement for George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. “Identify potential witnesses and indicators for evidence.”

The CSI of social media evidence gathering is mostly manual, but automating it could bring new benefits: A sudden flurry of tweets coming from a specific area can indicate anything from a riot to a natural disaster. As with most technologies, though, this is a double-edged sword.

“Used well, such tools should make police departments more aware of both local problems and complaints about their own work,” Nate Anderson, author of The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed, wrote on Ars Technica. “Used less than well, it can be a bit creepy, sort of on par with having a kid’s uncle listen outside her bedroom during a slumber party. And used badly, it can make a nice tool for keeping an eye on critics/dissenters.”

Private companies & advertisers are spying on you through your smartphones & computers:

Smartphones know everything — where people go, what they search for, what they buy, what they do for fun and when they go to bed. That is why advertisers, and tech companies like Google and Facebook, are finding new, sophisticated ways to track people on their phones and reach them with individualized, hypertargeted ads. And they are doing it without cookies, those tiny bits of code that follow users around the Internet, because cookies don’t work on mobile devices.

Drawbridge is one of several start-ups that have figured out how to follow people without cookies, and to determine that a cellphone, work computer, home computer and tablet belong to the same person, even if the devices are in no way connected. Before, logging onto a new device presented advertisers with a clean slate. 

“We’re observing your behaviors and connecting your profile to mobile devices,” said Eric Rosenblum, chief operating officer at Drawbridge. But don’t call it tracking. “Tracking is a dirty word,” he said. 

Drawbridge, founded by a former Google data scientist, says it has matched 1.5 billion devices this way, allowing it to deliver mobile ads based on Web sites the person has visited on a computer. If you research a Hawaiian vacation on your work desktop, you could see a Hawaii ad that night on your personal cellphone. 

For advertisers, intimate knowledge of users has long been the promise of mobile phones. But only now are numerous mobile advertising services that most people have never heard of — like DrawbridgeFlurryVelti and SessionM — exploiting that knowledge, largely based on monitoring the apps we use and the places we go. This makes it ever harder for mobile users to escape the gaze of private companies, whether insurance firms or shoemakers. 

If someone regularly checks a news app on a phone in bed each morning, browses the same news site from a laptop in the kitchen, visits from that laptop at an office an hour later and returns that night on a tablet in the same home, Drawbridge concludes that those devices belong to the same person. And if that person shopped for airplane tickets at work, Drawbridge could show that person an airline ad on the tablet that evening.

Ms. Sivaramakrishnan said its pinpointing was so accurate that it could show spouses different, personalized ads on a tablet they share. Before, she said, “ad targeting was about devices, not users, but it’s more important to understand who the user is.”

Similarly, if you use apps for Google Chrome, Facebook or Amazon on your cellphone, those companies can track what you search for, buy or post across your devices when you are logged in.

Other companies, like Flurry, get to know people by the apps they use.

Flurry embeds its software in 350,000 apps on 1.2 billion devices to help app developers track things like usage. Its tracking software appears on the phone automatically when people download those apps. Flurry recently introduced a real-time ad marketplace to send advertisers an anonymized profile of users the moment they open an app.

Ultimately, the tech giants, whose principal business is selling advertising, stand to gain. Advertisers using the new mobile tracking methods include Ford Motor, American Express, Fidelity, Expedia, Quiznos and Groupon. 

Responding to this problem, the Interactive Advertising Bureau started a group to explore the future of the cookie and alternatives, calling current online advertising “a lose-lose-lose situation for advertisers, consumers, publishers and platforms.” Most recently, Google began considering creating an anonymous identifier tied to its Chrome browser that could help target ads based on user Web browsing history.

For many advertisers, cookies are becoming irrelevant anyway because they want to reach people on their mobile devices.


The FBI released 400 “Stingray” cell phone spying documents:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has released more than 400 pages of documents related to cell site simulator technology (commonly referred to as “Stingray”). 

The documents, mostly redacted, suggest that the DOJ authorizes its law enforcement agents — some of whom work for a division called Wireless Intercept and Tracking Team (WITT), founded in 2004 — to use cell phone sniffers without warrants, as long as they obtain a secret “pen register” court order.  

The newly release documents strongly suggest that, in place of warrants, agents use a particular kind of order issued under an outdated legal regime. A US magistrate judge saysthis legal framework fails to strike the right balance between privacy and security, in favor of government secrecy and at the expense of democracy. It’s likely, US Magistrate Stephen Smith wrote, that “far more law-abiding citizens than criminals have been tracked” under this regime.

The documents reveal that the FBI believes it can use cell site simulators without a warrant, but so far only one federal court has considered the Fourth Amendment implications of these devices, including their interception of innocent users’ data.   

This most recent release to EPIC includes training and promotional materials from a specialized unit within the FBI, the “Wireless Intercept & Tracking Team” that had previously been hidden from public view.

According to the documents, the FBI’s Tracking Team provides technical and financial support to a quickly expanding group of federal and local law enforcement agents trained to use the controversial surveillance tools.

Officials do not need to obtain agreement or information from third party providers like cell phone companies. With these tools, the FBI can simply go over the heads of our telecoms and straight into our phones. (To learn about how Stingrays work, click here.)


3 thoughts on “Police & schools are spying on your Tweets & social media activity

  1. “Police & schools are spying on your Tweets & social media activity.”


    Won’t the NSA share their spying data with them?

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