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Are police misusing social media surveillance?

Imagine if you became a criminal suspect just because you tweeted a joke about robbing a bank or Googled how to make drugs. Thanks to the newest surveillance tools used by police, that's not an implausible scenario.

Paul Black

Paul Black

أكتوبر 12, 2021 · 4 min read

Are police misusing social media surveillance?

Open-source intelligence and its tools

At the end of September, The Intercept obtained a Michigan State Police contract revealing their use of scary surveillance software to monitor users’ social media and other online activities. But it seems that not only Michigan officers use this software.

Such open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools provide unprecedented web-scraping capabilities to find loads of information about a particular person. While such tools monitor only publicly available data (e.g., social media public posts, search results, Amazon shopping lists, public comments, etc.), they can compile very detailed user profiles by putting it all together in a matter of minutes.

ShadowDragon and Kaseware are two major companies behind such tools. Let’s take a look at them.

SocialNet

Having emerged back in 2009, SocialNet automatizes social media searches. So, an officer no longer needs to manually review posts or profiles of possible suspects as SocialNet can do it much faster and more efficiently. SocialNet operates as a web crawler that pulls the requested data from public websites. It then maps the data to come up with a rounded profile of an individual.

The software extracts data from over 120 social networks and websites. It can also reach the dark web, public instant messaging threads, and RSS feeds. What is even more worrying is that SocialNet developers boast Telegram-intercepting capabilities and additional features for targeting encrypted communication tools. So, it seems that SocialNet aims not only to view publicly available data but also private communications.

Due to its highly confidential nature, there is very limited information on how this software really works. However, it’s just clear that investigators can now dig deeply into your online persona, regardless of your involvement (or lack of involvement) in any criminal behavior.

OIMonitor

OIMonitor is another tool developed by ShadowDragon. It sends alerts if certain requested data is found on SocialNet. However, the company states that it can also detect potential crime before it happens. OIMonitor is supposed to see the so-called attack patterns, like threatening phrases, and alert officers.

OIMonitor also has access to ShadowDragon’s archives, which date back to 2011, so one can even look through information that is no longer on the web. Compounding the ethical issues of this tool, OIMonitor can also be used for employee surveillance, and ShadowDragon has recently suggested its suitability for employee background checks.

Kaseware

Kaseware is another tool helping the police to centralize all the surveillance data. It can classify, map, and analyze digested information and guide officers from the beginning to the end of an investigation.

It’s a pretty diverse piece of software that can process all kinds of data and perform such functions as report generation or even video conferencing. Its capabilities are pretty massive, and it can handle huge chunks of information.

Potential risks

Here are some major risks posed by these surveillance tools:

  • Privacy breaches. Even though such software may help officers catch criminals and even prevent future crimes, it raises many privacy concerns. The fact that each of us can be profiled in a matter of minutes is quite frightening. Moreover, the widespread usage of such software provides conditions for unprecedented in-depth surveillance, where each online step could potentially reach police records. What is worse, there is always a chance that someone will scramble such data with ill intentions;
  • Targeting innocent people. Algorithms are not always right. Moreover, a piece of software can get hacked, and someone could mess with the data for their own purposes. This might result in innocent people being targeted by the police;
  • Racial/cultural profiling. Such software creates the perfect conditions for bias and stereotyping, especially when it comes to people of color or those from a less prosperous background. Developers may ingrain such biases in their codes, perhaps unconsciously. Moreover, it can also affect activists who use privacy tools to preserve their online anonymity.

Other cases of digital police surveillance

The emergence of OSINT is not an isolated case but rather part of a frightening trend of increasingly sophisticated police surveillance methods. Here are a few other examples of other invasive tactics:

Clearview AI

Clearview AI is a facial recognition software developer collaborating with law enforcement agencies. It provides them with facial recognition tools that use large databases of photos scraped off social media and the web to find potential suspects.

Google Keyword Search Warrant

Google is another participant in innovative law-enforcement practices. It seems that Google can hand over your data to police officers if you look for specific terms that are deemed suspicious. So, basically, you can become a suspect by looking up certain phrases on Google.

How to minimize online surveillance

Here are a few tips on how to minimize online surveillance:

  • Use private tools with end-to-end encryption. They are harder for people to monitor, although different services will offer differing levels of privacy. Some of them also have vanish modes, which make content disappear after some time;
  • Stay private on social media. Always set your social media settings to private. Also, avoid posting any confidential and sensitive data;
  • Turn off Google’s location tracking. That way, it won’t track your whereabouts, and no one will see where you’ve been.