A recent contract between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Babel X software firm is raising some privacy and mass surveillance concerns. The software is used for keyword-based social media tracking and advertises a “predictive analytics” feature, leading to natural questions about its potential use for profiling and the monitoring of Americans not under suspicion or investigation of a crime.
Contract with social media tracking firm raises alarms
The contract information available to the general public is limited, but indicates that the FBI engaged Babel X for 5,000 software licenses with a start date of March 30. Publisher Babel Street primarily advertises the social media tracking software as a highly refined search tool, allowing users to search posted keywords within specified boundaries such as geographical range and certain profile traits.
That by itself might simply be seen as a more efficient means of doing something that law enforcement already does; keyword searches of social media posts are not necessarily a surveillance concern if they are within the auspices of an existing legitimate investigation of a crime. It’s some of the added features that Babel X offers, combined with the lack of information about what the contract actually entails and the plans for how the software will be used, that is raising concerns.
One is its advertisement of “predictive analytics” features that can provide details on the emotions, sentiments and attitudes of search subjects. Another is the use of emoji analysis, or an attempt to ascribe meaning and intent to the use of emojis that are in a post as a substitute for direct communication. Elements such as this deployed in social media tracking are too close to mass surveillance and “thoughtcrime” for some critics.
The social media tracking campaign appears to have been prompted by the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol, and the feeling that online activity could have predicted that violence might break out. The contract is worth about $27 million, with $5 million to be paid immediately for one year of service. It is one of the largest contracts for surveillance software ever taken out by a US government agency, and some experts say that five years is an unusually long amount of time for something like this.
Questionable tracking methods come amidst bipartisan surveillance concerns
The push for enhanced social media tracking comes at a politically odd time, as big tech platforms and surveillance are facing substantial hostility from both sides of the aisle. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), the House Judiciary Committee’s highest-ranking Republican, called for FBI Director Christopher Wray to testify before the committee with greater detail about what the contract entails and how the software will be used.
Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate for Comparitech, enumerated the problems that the routine use of this social media tracking software might set, including potentially getting up to the same tricks that got Clearview AI into legal trouble: “I can foresee several issues with the FBI monitoring social media. First, it will surely have a chilling effect on free speech. People behave differently when they know they’re being watched, leading to self-censorship. Second, this is bulk surveillance, which means the vast majority of people whom the FBI is monitoring are not suspected of any crime. Third, sentiment analysis is about as reliable as astrology. The odds of misinterpretation are very high. Fourth, it sets a dangerous precedent. Dictators in autocratic countries could contract with Babel X or a similar company to spy on dissidents, activists, journalists, and others who speak out. Last, it’s notable that the FBI is using a third-party vendor instead of working with the social networks themselves. This is probably because the social networks would never agree to let the FBI directly monitor their users, even though the FBI says it only wants public info. That could mean Babel X scrapes info from social networks using bots, a practice that Facebook and other social media have prohibited in their terms of service and actively fought against to little avail.”
The FBI did estimate that it plans to run about 20,000 keyword searches per month on “publicly available information.” Critics point out that provides a lot of opportunity for misinterpretation, particularly if agents are attempting “predictive” work such as interpreting emoji strings or trying to guess a subject’s mood from post content. The fear is that misinterpretation could lead to invasive investigations of Americans for spurious reasons.
Social media tracking programs by law enforcement agencies do not have an entirely free hand, as they can face civil court challenges. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently opened a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over its vetting program for visa applicants and foreign visitors, which collects social media data. The EFF has characterized it as a surveillance program and seeks greater public transparency regarding how the collected data is used. EFF’s lawsuit was filed after a late 2021 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking this information was denied.
Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, believes that the American public should assume the worst about any potential surveillance program: “Unfortunately, the FBI and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies will happily use “attacks” like the January 6th event to violate the privacy of American citizens. While the monitoring of social platforms can help law enforcement to plan for possible incidents, my fear is that it may eventually lead to a “Minority Report” type situation where the FBI and other agencies may arrest or otherwise detain citizens that haven’t actually violated any laws. I also don’t think we can count on the FBI to use the software only for its stated purpose. If there is a way to misuse a tool, you can rely on government agencies to do so.”
Social media tracking tools of this type have already been put into use by some local police departments in the US, including a trial of Babel X by the Seattle Police Department in 2016. Records and emails about that program, released in a 2017 FOIA request conducted by journalists with Vice magazine, indicate that the FBI and Secret Service may have already been using it at the time and that it may have routinely been used by both local and federal police for surveillance of social media ahead of major events (such as the Super Bowl). The Pentagon was also apparently Babel X’s first major customer as it launched in the mid-2010s, contracting with it for monitoring the online communications of suspected terrorists.