You are being followed: The business of social media surveillance

LittleSis is partnering with MuckRock to investigate how police across the country are monitoring, tracking, and archiving public social media posts. To plug into our work, follow this link to file a freedom of information request using MuckRock’s platform.

In keeping with our mission to monitor and track the powers that be, we at LittleSis turned the surveillance gaze back onto the local forces monitoring social media. We not only dug into the corporate profiles of some of the companies police contract to snoop on your Tweets and Facebook rants, we also filed freedom of information requests to twenty police departments across the country to find out how, when, and why they monitor social media.

Brightplanet Specializes in analyzing “deep web” content
Geofeedia Develops location-based social media surveillance software
ZeroFOX “The Social Risk Management Company”™
Intrado Develops “Beware” threat scoring software
LifeRaft Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Magnet Forensics Develops digital forensics software
Media Sonar Technologies Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Signal Corporation Limited Develops Microsoft-sourced, NZ-based social media monitoring software

Before we started receiving documents from the police, we probed the power behind these eight firms to unravel the social-media-monitoring complex; you can peruse our list, completed using publicly available information, to learn more about each company. However, one particularly well-connected firm that we believe is worth highlighting here is ZeroFOX, which actively monitored prominent Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore and labeled some of them, including former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson, “threat actors.”

The company reached out to Baltimore officials first, offering it services pro-bono, which ZeroFOX executives painted as a selfless gesture of civic responsibility. But city officials may have been especially receptive to ZeroFOX’s pitch because of the powerful names standing behind it. The company’s leadership includes former NSA Director Mike McConnell, who is the former vice chair and current senior executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Robert Rodriguez, who has ties to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and a security firm started by top Bush-era security official Michael Chertoff.

In our information requests to police, we asked for contracts with the social media monitoring companies listed above, records of correspondence with these companies, documents containing social media monitoring policy, all records of archived social media postings, and more. We sent them out on January 28. As of May 17, we have received documents from five departments, including Austin, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Philadelphia police.

All of the contracts we’ve received so far mention a company called Geofeedia. Previous reports indicate that Geofeedia also has contracts with Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Because the company was such a common thread, we decided to focus our reporting on Geofeedia, which appears to be the hardest hustler in the social media surveillance game.

Geofeedia’s business grows “7-fold” between 2014 and 2015

Started in 2011 by Phil Harris, a businessperson with stints at Priceline and Match.com, Geofeedia allows users to target a geographic area on their computer and scoop up the public social media posts of everybody within the target range. The posts are harvested from the companies with which Geofeedia has patents, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Yik Yak, Seno-Weibo, and others. In addition to targeting a geographical region, users can also use Geofeedia to search social media posts based on people and keywords.

Geofeedia example

In an interview published on April 20, Harris claimed that his company invented “social media intelligence,” and that in the near future Geofeedia would continue to grow “extremely rapidly.” A year earlier, Harris said the company had 500 paying customers and had grown 7-fold since 2014. Its clients not only include law enforcement, but also news organizations like CNN, BBC, Fox and Mashable, as well as companies interested in gauging customers’ “brand experience” in real time.

Geofeedia is financed by the venture capital firms Silversmith Capital Partners and Hyde Park Venture Partners. Silversmith was launched in 2015 by alumni of Bain Capital, Bain Company and Spectrum Equity, while Hyde Park shares some alumni of the digital marketing company Salesforce.com with Geofeedia. In April 2016, The Intercept’s Lee Fang revealed that Geofeedia also received startup funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and had a contract with the FBI.

In addition to touting its utility for for marketers as well emergency first responders, Harris also said in a radio interview that Geofeedia specialized in monitoring social movements like the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests in Greece. Company representatives also suggested that police testing out Geofeedia software use it to monitor protests in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014. Another representative from the company confirmed to LittleSis that the software was used in 2014 and 2015 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, whose owner, Canada-based Triple Five Group, contracts with Geofeedia.

Police departments using Geofeedia to monitor social media

At press time we possessed dozens of documents from five police departments, and as more documents come in, we’ll run stories about what we receive. Here’s what we have so far:

Austin Police Department

We obtained three files from the Austin Police Department, including a copy of a contract between Geofeedia and APD, several emails between the company and the police department, and document acknowledging a pilot program in July 2014.

On June 24, 2015, the Austin PD signed a $9,500 contract with Geofeedia that gave an unlimited number of user licenses to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center. The contract, which spanned from June 24 to March 31, 2016, also included “ongoing priority support, one user-training session per month,” and unlimited alerts. It also included up to 200,000 of unspecified “items” of data a month. It is not known whether APD is pursuing a new contract with the firm.

Emails between Austin’s Financial Services Department and the Police Department also indicate that two other social media monitoring companies are registered vendors with the city. These include Motorola-partnered Intrado, which makes software that uses a person’s social media postings (among many other things) to assign a threat-level to them, and Brightplanet, which specializes in deep web data mining. Neither Intrado nor Brightplanet have ever signed contracts with the city of Austin, according to city emails.

Oakland Police Department

LittleSis received an invoice from 10/22/14 from the Oakland Police Department detailing a purchase from Geofeedia. It yields few details: the invoice was for a $8,500 annual subscription for “Geofeedia ‘Cloud’ based Social Media Platform.”

When we followed up, Oakland PD did not tell us whether or not it renewed its contract with Geofeedia after October 2015, but informed us that they were searching for more documents pertaining to our request.

San Diego Police Department

San Diego PD gave us a purchase order as well as an order form and a document indicating its justification for the purchase. The department bought an annual subscription for $18,000 that kicked in on July 1, 2015 and allows users to access “up to five real-time streams” that had the ability to track “influencers” — people on social media with particularly large followers and influence — and could translate social media postings from Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, and Sina Weibo.

In a “Business Case Concept” document, Assistant Police Chief Al Guaderrama acknowledges that SDPD has used information culled from social media sources “in conjunction with traditional investigative techniques,” and that Geofeedia would allow police to aggregate social media in a more effective way:

Analysts and investigators currently use free and basic tools similar to Geofeedia. However, these tools do not permit data collection, aggregation, downloading for analysis, or alerts. Additionally, limited access to the type of social media platforms and postings that are available only allow basic analysis of social media activities.

The document also says $25,000 was allocated to the police department for the Geofeedia purchase, although the subscription only cost the department $18,000. It also seems to indicate that a renewed Geofeedia subscription will be factored into the department’s budget in the future:

Annual renewal costs will be included in the Department’s Operating Budget.

San Jose Police Department

From the San Jose Police Department we obtained a purchase order form for Geofeedia services, a bidding contract, several emails between the police department and the office of the city management (all here), an investment proposal from the police department, and over one hundred pages of email between the police department, city officials, representatives from three social media monitoring firms, including Geofeedia.

The contract includes an annual subscription to Geofeedia services from 9/15/15 through 9/14/16 for the department’s special investigations unit. The services purchased are capable of storing up to 500,000 social media posts a month, gathered from a max search radius of 15 kilometers that gathers posts from Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, Sina, Weibo, and VK.

The investment proposal, which states that SJPD investigators use Geofeedia software “almost daily,” reveals a number of startling ways San Jose police have used Geofeedia for noncriminal matters.

SJPD first put the software to use when protesters staged a die-in during a speech given by Indian Prime Minister Narendi Modi in September 2015, monitoring the social media postings of protesters to receive “real time updates on potential threats.” In another instance, SJPD used Geofeedia to manage its public image, after coming across a YouTube video revealing a police “use of force situation” against a citizen. The excerpt is worth quoting in its entirety:

In yet another example, on December 9, 2015, an SIU officer noticed someone posted a use of force situation on YouTube. No one from the Department was aware of the posting, which had a potential for unfavorable media scrutiny. Internal Affairs and the Media Relations Unit were immediately notified as was the Chief’s Office. Early warning notifications like this can assist the Department with messaging and transparency.

From the cache of emails we received, we learned that two other social media monitoring firms unsuccessfully vied for a contract with SJPD in 2015. These include LifeRaft and Media Sonar Technologies, which both specialize in location-based social media tracking software. Additionally, internal emails also indicate that Geofeedia software was used during Super Bowl 50 by SJPD’s “covert response unit.”

Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and the Santa Clara Police Department

In an email obtained from the San Jose Police Department and dated 9/1/2015, SJPD Lieutenant Michael Sullivan says that the Santa Clara Police Department had been using Geofeedia Services on loan from the local Northern California fusion center:

Santa Clara using Geofeedia

Philadelphia Police Department

From the Philadelphia Police Department we obtained a purchase order, a standard operating procedure for the department’s Social Media Investigative Support Team, and a dozen pages explaining why most of our open records request could not be fulfilled (all here).

PPD purchased an annual subscription from Geofeedia for $26,000 in February 2015, and the department told LittleSis it has not renewed the contract. Like Austin, PPD’s subscription included an unlimited number of user licenses for its local fusion center, the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.

The police department’s standard operating procedure for social media, which appears to have been issued by the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, contains more information on how when Philadelphia surveil social media. For example, police can use social media to produce “assessment reports” about First Amendment protected activities.

Police also store information from social media in the form of screenshots, printouts of chat logs, and copies of URLs, and are expected to stay vigilant on social media even when they’re off the clock. But much still is left unsaid: Nearly 3 pages describing how police can mine public social media posts for intelligence was blacked out.

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Because social media incites within us a compulsion to share our thoughts, even potentially illegal ones, law enforcement sees it as a tool to preempt behavior that appears threatening to the status quo. We caught a glimpse of where this road could take us in Michigan, where the local news recently reported that a man calling for civil unrest on Facebook because of the Flint water crisis was nearly the target of a criminal investigation. At its worst, social media monitoring could create classes of “pre-criminals” apprehended before they commit crimes if police and prosecutors are able to argue that social media postings forecast intent. This is the predictive business model to which Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris aspires.

LittleSis is still waiting for documents from 16 other police departments, including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, DC (Metropolitan Police), Minneapolis, Oakland (more), Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Seattle, and St. Louis. Both Dallas and St. Louis have together demanded hundreds of dollars for documents, while Baltimore rejected our request and Chicago was unhelpful.

There’s a wealth of information out there that we can access, but getting it has to be a broad effort that includes everybody, including you. To that end, MuckRock is launching a crowdfunded, crowdsourced campaign to reveal how police across the country are using social media to monitor people and the events they attend.

Interested in following up on a request we’ve sent out, or filing a brand new one to a department we’ve yet to contact? Follow this link and file a request. You can use the template we used, or you can create your own.

Happy sleuthing!

Update, 5/18

The Boston Police Department also contracts with Geofeedia, according to publicly available records. The police department submitted a $6,700 check to the company on January 26, 2016. The records were surfaced and posted on privacysos.org by Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU – Massachusetts.

Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

Several of the officials charged with regulating Texas’s prison labor program, wherein thousands of workers behind bars are compelled to produce goods and provide services for free, are connected to some of the richest and most powerful institutions and people in the state.

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), the prison industry division within the state’s Department of Criminal Justice, has authority over how much compensation inmates working for the state receive for their labor. Currently, inmates working for TCI are not paid for the work done while serving their time; the only inmates who are paid anything are the small fraction who are employed by TCI’s private sector prison industries program.

Continue reading Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

Oil pipeline company spends heavily on Cuomo-tied lobbying firm

PAI’s most recent report showed how companies behind major New York State natural gas infrastructure projects have been increasing lobbying expenditures and contracting with firms tied to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s family and administration.

This trend is not confined to the natural gas sector: at least one oil infrastructure company is employing the same tactic.

According to filings with New York’s Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE), Pilgrim Transportation of New York, the company behind the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline, spent a total of $216,250 on lobbying from 2013 through 2015. If it goes forward, the Pilgrim Pipeline will transport gasoline and other petroleum products from New York to New Jersey

Pilgrim’s annual lobbying spending has accelerated rapidly; the company spent more than twice as much in 2015 – $146,500 – as it did in 2014 – $62,250, and is on pace to spend $174,000 in 2016.

More than two thirds of Pilgrim’s total lobbying expenditures have been with the Cuomo-tied firm Bolton-St. Johns.

From PAI’s report “Natural gas infrastructure lobby ramps up spending in New York State:”

Bolton’s top lobbyist, Giorgio DeRosa, is the father of Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa and wife of one-time Cuomo patronage chief Maureen DeRosa. Giorgio DeRosa lobbied against the fracking moratorium for the Pipe Trades Association and American Petroleum Institute, and lobbied for Bluestone Gas around its Broome County pipeline. The most recent lobbying disclosure for Bolton show DeRosa was still lobbying for API. He has personally given $10,000 to Cuomo’s campaigns, and given $14,018.94 to his Bolton St. Johns political action committee, BOLT-PAC, which donated $12,000 to the governor.

Another key lobbyist at Bolton St. John’s, Emily Giske, has given $6,250 to Cuomo’s campaigns and volunteered to coordinate floor operations during Cuomo’s campaign for attorney general. She joined DeRosa on the team lobbying on behalf of API in the most recent lobbying cycle for which there are filings.

Bolton St. Johns has donated $42,500 to the governor.

Bolton-St. Johns’ ties to Governor Cuomo can be seen in the map below.

The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

Since announcing his $41 billion affordable housing plan in 2014, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has encountered fierce resistance from grassroots housing advocates, who have pointed out that the plan would displace thousands of low-income families and spur gentrification in neighborhoods targeted for rezoning.

Until very recently, that opposition was also matched by the city’s 59 community boards and five borough presidents, which near unanimously struck down rezoning proposals that composed the wider housing plan. But last week the City Council’s land use committee, satisfied with amendments to the plan that partially expand the number of affordable units, voted 15-2 for its approval. Some advocates have celebrated the changes; others noted that thousands of low-income New Yorkers would still be left out of the deal. The full City Council body is expected to vote on the mayor’s plan this week.

Rarely mentioned amid the political jostling are the names of the developers pushing the plan forward. Here’s one: Ron Moelis of L+M Development. In terms of financial and personal ties to the de Blasio administration, Moelis stands out among his peers as the affordable housing developer behind de Blasio’s plan.

Continue reading The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

The payday loan family behind Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s deregulatory zeal

The payday loan industry has a new friend in Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wasserman Schultz is co-sponsoring a piece of legislation – ironically titled the “Consumer Protection and Choice Act” – which would delay and eventually block new regulations sought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Why is Rep. Wasserman Schultz going to bat for an industry that is bleeding her constituency dry to the tune of $280 million per year? One possibility: Florida’s leading family of payday loan profiteers is a major donor to Wasserman Schultz, and shelled out a series of large contributions to her campaign last June. Perhaps she is repaying the favor.

For Florida-based Amscot Financial, predatory lending is a family business. CEO Ian MacKechnie – who is worth millions – has said that he “sympathizes with his hard-luck customers” and that he wants to “feel like we’re offering valuable services at reasonable prices.”

MacKechnie does not exactly bring a strong ethical record to this work, however. In the 1990s, Amscot Financial pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and agreed to end its insurance business after regulators found that it was tricking customers into buying unnecessary financial products.

MacKechnie runs the business with his wife and two sons, but this is hardly a mom and pop operation. Amscot currently has 235 payday lending locations across Florida, and MacKechnie said he wanted to be the “Walmart of financial service” in a 2009 interview.

To that end, Amscot consistently spends $320,000 per year on lobbying, a total of nearly $3 million over the last 10 years. Their lobbyists include Holland and Knight’s Jim Davis, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and once included former FL Governor Charlie Crist’s Chief of Staff, Eric Eikenberg.

When it comes to politicians, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a MacKechnie family favorite. Since 2010, Ian MacKechnie and his family have donated $9,600 to her and $38,850 to her PAC, Democrats Win Seats, placing the family among her top all-time donors.

In two days last June, not long before she co-sponsored the payday lending bill, they cut a series of checks totaling $10,200 to her and her PAC.

The MacKechnies are also fans of Dennis Ross, the lead sponsor of the bill. He has brought in $19,600 from AmScot Financial.

Click through the map below for details on these contributions.

Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

A hedge-fund backed front group opposing bankruptcy in Puerto Rico is in disarray. Board members of the group, the 60 Plus Association, are suing the group’s president, Amy Frederick, for secretly funneling payments to companies controlled by her husband.

Hedge funds recruited 60 Plus to form a group, Main Street Bondholders, that pretends to represent retirees opposing bankruptcy for the island. The hedge funds have been trying to prevent bankruptcy and promote austerity on the island in order to ensure higher payouts on their debt holdings. They’ve been using a range of legal and advocacy strategies to promote their agenda, which comes at a great cost to Puerto Ricans.

Continue reading Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

New York Times runs Michael Hayden pro-drone op-ed; fails to disclose ties to drone manufacturers

In its Sunday Review section on February 21, 2016, the New York Times ran a column titled “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare.” The article’s thesis is summarized in its second-last sentence: “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher if we had not taken action;” and it was written by Michael V Hayden, who directed first the National Security Agency and then the Central Intelligence Agency under George W Bush. Hayden currently serves on the board of several defense industry corporations, including drone manufacturers.

Though the Times identified Hayden’s past government positions at the end of the article, the newspaper failed to disclose Hayden’s present role on the board of Motorola Solutions, a military and defense contractor that recently made an investment in CyPhy Works, which produces unmanned aerial vehicles – drones. Motorola Solutions paid Hayden $240,125 for his service on its board in 2015.

The Times also did not mention that Hayden served, until last year, on the board of Alion Sciences, a information technology firm that serves the US military. Hayden joined Alion’s board in 2010 in a term that ended in 2015. In 2012, Alion was awarded a $24 million contract to develop the US Navy’s unmanned and automatic weapons systems. From Alion’s press release:

Alion’s NSWC PCD work includes technical engineering to increase unmanned and automated weapon systems capabilities for such tasks as the implementation of unmanned systems payloads on “commercial off the shelf” or existing non-developmental unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) with limited modifications. Under the contract, this work can include UUVs, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In 2014, Alion issued a notice that it was suspending its filings with the SEC because it had fewer than 300 security holders, so Hayden’s compensation from that firm is not available.

It is also noteworthy that Hayden is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a consulting firm that advises defense industry clients on how to obtain government contracts, another detail that went unmentioned in the Times.

Hayden’s positions on the boards of the defense contractors whose business he advocated for in the Times can be seen in the map below:

The Times’s failure to disclose Hayden’s ties to the industry he was advocating in its pages is the latest example of a trend of media outlets running commentary by defense experts that also have a financial stake in perpetuating warfare. PAI reported on this phenomenon – and Hayden’s involvement – in 2013 with respect to President Obama’s proposed war in Syria.

Vulture Fund Feminism

A newly-reported contract between Madeleine Albright’s consulting firm and a major Wall Street hedge fund has only been a footnote in presidential campaign coverage, but it speaks volumes about how elites in both parties find common ground above the fray of partisan bickering and gridlock that tends to dominate the news cycle.

A consulting firm founded and led by Madeleine Albright, who recently made a colorful feminist appeal to women voters on behalf of Hillary Clinton, just landed a new contract with billionaire Paul Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management. Singer is a major backer of Marco Rubio.

On Tuesday Politico Influence reported that Elliott Management hired the former secretary of state’s firm, Albright Stonebridge, to advise on the fund’s ongoing rift with Samsung. Politico noted that Elliott had previously hired Albright Stonebridge to support its efforts to wring massive profits out of Argentina.

Continue reading Vulture Fund Feminism

Measuring “contagion” effect of political donations using LittleSis data

While the LittleSis website is a useful tool for researchers, academics, journalists, and activists to explore and map networks of powerful people and organizations, our data is available for anyone to use for free under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. This means that anyone can use the data in our database for whatever they like, so long as they credit LittleSis and make their own content freely available as well.

Vincent Traag, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, recently used the LittleSis database to track how decisions to donate to political candidates spread through social networks.

Continue reading Measuring “contagion” effect of political donations using LittleSis data

The financial industry gives Geithner some credit

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner secured a line of credit from JPMorgan Chase, one of the too-big-to-fail recipients of bailout cash.

Geithner is looking to buy in to a new $12 billion fund at Warburg Pincus, the private equity firm where he now works. He reportedly stands to make a 20-30% return on the investment. Although he is not required to disclose the size or purpose of the credit line, a source told Bloomberg that Geithner was among several staff members to borrow money to invest in the fund.

So JPMorgan Chase, one of the banks Geithner bailed out, is about to help Geithner make loads of money.

As Huffington Post’s HuffPost Hill newsletter put it: “It’s almost like the entire Wall Street bailout was just one elaborate scheme to help him pay for heated bathroom tiles.”

We have previously noted that Geithner’s post-Treasury career has closely followed the path taken his mentor, Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Both had a brief cooling-off period at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, before taking high-paying Wall Street jobs (optics be damned). For Rubin it was Citigroup. For Geither it is Warburg Pincus, one of the largest private equity firms in the country.

Follow Geithner’s path from regulator to Wall Streeter in this map (click through for a larger version):