The documents leaked to media outlets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden this year have brought national intelligence gathering and surveillance operations under a level of scrutiny not seen in decades.
Often left out of this conversation, though, is the massive private surveillance industry that provides services to law enforcement, defense agencies and corporations in the U.S. and abroad – a sprawling constellation of companies and municipalities. “It’s a circle where everyone [in these industries] is benefitting,” says Eric King, lead researcher of watchdog group Privacy International. “Everyone gets more powerful, and richer.”
Promotional materials for numerous private spy companies boast of how law enforcement organizations can use their products to monitor people at protests or other large crowds – including by keeping tabs on individual people’s social media presence.Kenneth Lipp, a journalist who attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia from October 19th to 23rd, tells Rolling Stone that monitoring Twitter and Facebook was a main theme of the week.
“Social media was the buzzword,” says Lipp. He says much of the discussion seemed to be aimed at designing policies that wouldn’t trigger potentially limiting court cases: “They want to avoid a warrant standard.”
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While the specifics of which police departments utilize what surveillance technologies is often unclear, there is evidence to suggest that use of mass surveillance against individuals not under direct investigation is common. “The default is mass surveillance, the same as NSA’s ‘collect it all’ mindset,” says King. “There’s not a single company that if you installed their product, [it] would comply with what anyone without a security clearance would think is appropriate, lawful use.”
The YouTube page for a company called NICE, for instance, features a highly produced video showing how its products can be used in the event of a protest. “The NICE video analytic suite alerts on an unusually high occupancy level in a city center,” a narrator says as the camera zooms in on people chanting and holding signs that read “clean air” and “stop it now.”
The video then shows authorities redirecting traffic to avoid a bottleneck, and promises that all audio and video from the event will be captured and processed almost immediately. “The entire event is then reconstructed on a chronological timeline, based on all multimedia sources,” says the narrator.
According to an interview with the head of NICE’s security division published in Israel Gateway, NICE systems are used by New Jersey Transit and at the Statue of Liberty, though it isn’t clear if they are the same products shown in the video.
“Thousands of customers worldwide use NICE Security solutions to keep people safe and protect property,” says Sara Preto, a spokesperson for NICE. She declined to confirm any specific clients, but added: “We work with law enforcement and other government agencies within the framework of all relevant and national laws.”
Another program, made by Bright Planet and called BlueJay, is billed in a brochure to law enforcement as a “Twitter crime scanner.” BlueJay allows cops to covertly monitor accounts and hashtags; three that Bright Planet touts in promotional material are #gunfire, #meth, and #protest. In another promotional document, the company says BlueJay can “monitor large public events, social unrest, gang communications, and criminally predicated individuals,” as well as “track department mentions.” Bright Planet did not respond to a request for comment.
A third company, 3i:Mind, lays out a scenario for a potential law enforcement client that begins: “Perhaps you are tracking an upcoming political rally.” It continues:
Once you set up the OpenMIND™ system to profile and monitor the rally, it will search the web for the event on web pages, social networking sites, blogs, forums and so forth, looking for information about the nature of the rally (e.g. peaceful, violent, participant demographics), try to identify both online and physical world activist leaders and collect information about them, monitor the event in real-time and alert you on user-defined critical developments.
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