Since 2016, constr freedom groups raised alarms o network monitoring chatter on social media by city officials and police departments. Services such as Media Sonar, Social Sentinel and Geofeedia analyze online conversations, guessing at police and city leaders on what hundreds of thousands of users are saying online.
Zencity, an Israeli data analysis firm serving 200 agencies across the U.S., presents itself as a less invasive alternative because it offers only aggregate data and bans targeted monitoring of protests. Cities like Phoenix, New Orleans and Pittsburgh say they use the service to combat misinformation and measure public reaction to topics like social distancing or traffic laws.
In an interview with WIRED, CEO Eyal Feder-Levy describes the service’s built-in privacy protections, such as editing personal information, as a new approach to community engagement. However, local officials using Zencity describe a variety of new and potentially alarming ways to use the tools, which some cities use without a public approval process, often through free rehearsals.
Brandon Talsma, a county supervisor in Jasper County, Iowa, describes 72 intense hours last September that began with a Zencity warning. His office had been using the tool for only a few months when Zencity analysts noticed a sharp rise in social media chatter about Jasper County following news of the gruesome murder.
A 44-year-old black man living in the town of Grinnell, who is 92 percent white, was found dead in a ditch, his body wrapped in blankets and set on fire. Early news reports were fixed on gloomy details, and rumors spread that the man was lynched by Grinnell residents.
“We are a small county; we have very limited assets and resources, ”Talsma said. “The recipe could have become very ugly.”
Zencity noted that almost none of the chatter online originated in Iowa. Talsma’s team feared the rumors might snow down into a kind of misinformation causes violence. Talsma said the team did not consider racial optics until Zencity alerted them to an online discussion.
Police say the murder was not racially motivated and convened a press conference at which the NAACP president from Iowa-Nebraska Betty Andrews supported that finding. Police have since identified and indicted four suspects, three white men and one white woman, in connection with the case.
Zencity produces customized reports for city officials and police, using them machine learning scan public conversations from social media, messaging committees, local news and 311 calls, promising insight into how residents respond to a particular topic. Firms like Meltwater and Brandwatch similarly track key phrases for corporate clients, but do not prohibit users from seeing individual profiles.
This is a powerful tool for local law enforcement agencies across the country, which are still responding to the national debate on police reform, as well as the recent rise in crime in major cities.
As long as critics lead those debates on the public channel, Zencity can pick up and create reports on what they say. It doesn’t have full access to the “fire hose” of everything discussed on Facebook and Twitter, but it continuously launches customized social media platform searches to examine and weigh sentiment.
“If they’re going to meet at this location or at that location, it’s all publicly available information and anyone can review it for free,” explains Sheriff Tony Spurlock of Douglas County, Colorado, south of Denver. He says the sheriff’s office used the tool for about a year, signing the document $ 72,000 contract in early 2021. The tool provides aggregate information and does not identify individual users.
Agencies are being warned about the ban, says Feder-Levy. He says the software alerts the company if customers use the service to target individuals or groups, as has happened elsewhere. For example, in 2016, the Baltimore Police Department tracked phrases like #MuslimLivesMatter, #DontShoot and #PoliceBrutality.
Spurlock says the software proved useful after prosecutors concluded in April that two police officers justifiably shot a man last December. The details of the shooting are complex: the man was armed with a knife but struggled with bipolar depression for years and called 911. The dispatcher told police they were responding to an urgent call for domestic violence, but the man’s wife described the call as a welfare check and said was fired by police almost immediately upon arrival.