Surveillance company Voyager Labs touts its “pre-crime” ability to identify likely perpetrators of future criminal acts, based on its scanning of social media with AI and machine learning tools. The sales pitch has garnered the interest of “federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecution offices, as well as Fortune 100 and other corporations,” according to the company’s press releases. However, it has also drawn a lawsuit from Meta over the data scraping and use of tens of thousands of fake accounts it allegedly requires to function.
As with its contemporary Clearview AI, Voyager appears to be running afoul of social media terms of service (at minimum) in its mass gathering of personal data to feed its predictive analysis tools. Meta is seeking a permanent injunction against Voyager’s proprietary software, which it alleges takes user data that is meant to be private and only accessed with consent and permission of the end user.
Upstart surveillance company trawls social media platforms with small army of fake accounts
Meta is framing the lawsuit as an opening volley in a war against data scraping and invasive surveillance by law enforcement partners. A crusade against surveillance might come off as somewhat hypocritical given the source, but in this case the surveillance company has clearly gone farther than is usual for the targeted advertising ecosystem given the creation of some 38,000 fake accounts to access the data of about 600,000 Facebook users.
Meta says that the surveillance company was also active with fake accounts on Instagram, as well as a variety of other major social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and even the famously privacy-sensitive Telegram. It’s not made clear what Voyager was seeking on those other platforms, but Meta says that it was harvesting just about all of the information it could from Facebook profiles: profile information, photos, friend lists, the content of posts, and even “like” and comment history.
Meta says that Voyager’s activity did not involve any compromise of its systems, but that it did use a “diverse network” of computers throughout the world to obscure its activity and pass verification checks the fake accounts might have otherwise failed. The suit seeks a permanent injunction against Voyager’s data scraping software and a permanent ban of the service from the platform, as well as unspecified financial damages to be determined at trial. It has long been Facebook policy that, outside of some exceptions for organizations or events, users may have only one account under their real name.
As the Meta suit points out, this quasi-legal data scraping is not subject to regulatory oversight or accountability and may violate user civil rights. Other companies that have engaged in similar practices, such as Clearview AI, have found themselves in more than just civil trouble after the fact; regulators around the world have done everything from fine the surveillance company to ban it from the country entirely, and all of this for doing less than what Voyager did with its fake accounts.
The defense from each surveillance company has typically been that the data scraping is legal because it only harvests information that people make public anyway, but that is hard to square with the Facebook model that allows users to grant permission to other specific users to view nearly all of their activity on the platform. Cambridge Analytica set the bar for this several years ago, when it was heavily penalized for finding a loophole in the platform to access personal profile information it otherwise would not have been able to see.
Regulators show little tolerance for data scraping, but surveillance firms persist
Voyager keeps a tight lid on exactly who it partners with, but the Meta case reveals that the surveillance company worked with the Los Angeles Police Department from 2019 and that its data scraping impacted over half a million user accounts. Meta director of platform enforcement and litigation Jessica Romero said that some of the people that were impacted did not fit the criminal profile that Voyager sells itself as being able to anticipate.
While concerns about this sort of data scraping are often generalized and hypothetical, some of Voyager’s public comments and advertising materials have made clear that there is some cause for concern about how they specifically put it to use. In one case, the surveillance company indicated that it views usernames with Arab pride slogans or posts about Islam as an indicator that the subject may be involved in religious extremism. In several other cases, the service boasted of tracking people who had announced that they were diagnosed with Covid-19 and using their data scraping to create maps of these people’s contact network to determine who else might have been exposed.
This is the second time that Meta has taken a surveillance company to court over data scraping. In July 2022 the company sued an outfit called Octopus and its owner for using fake accounts on Instagram to gather information from about 350,000 user profiles.