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FBI Expands Ability to Surveil Social Media and Cellphone Location Data

by Douglas Ankney

May 26, 2020, demonstrations around the nation erupted over the police killing of George Floyd. Shortly afterwards, the FBI signed an expedited agreement to extend its relationship with Dataminr, The Intercept reported.

Dataminr is a company that monitors social media and had already had contracts with the FBI exceeding $1 million. A spokesperson for Dataminr said in a statement, “Dataminr provides the FBI with First Alert, a product that delivers breaking news alerts on emergency events, such as natural disasters, fires, explosions and shootings.”

But, The Intercept has learned that since the protests began, FBI agents have questioned one individual for simply tweeting in jest that they were members of the far-left, violent activist group “Antifa.” Other protest organizers have reported being questioned in their homes by the Joint Terrorism Task Force within hours of posting an event on social media.

A few days after extending its agreement with Dataminr, the FBI modified its agreement with Venntel, Inc., a technology firm that maps and sells the movements of millions of Americans. It purchases bulk location-tracking information, including cell-site location data, and sells it mostly to government agencies. Neither Venntel, nor its parent company Gravy Analytics, nor the FBI would comment on the contract modification.

But Mary Zerkel, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s (“AFSC”) Communities Against Islamophobia, said, “We are deeply concerned that the FBI is further expanding their surveillance capacity. The FBI has for decades used surveillance and racial profiling to target Muslims, immigrants, people of color, activists in general and Black activists in particular. AFSC itself has a substantial FBI file.”

Few regulations exist to restrict location tracking data that many phone applications collect and monetize. While the U.S. Supreme Court held in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), that law enforcement authorities need a warrant to obtain cell-site location data from service providers, many experts worry the ruling won’t apply to third party data brokers like Venntel.



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