Toronto

Twitter and Instagram ban London, Ont., company for helping police track protesters

'You want people to communicate freely and not be looking over their shoulder every time they tweet'

Media Sonar

Media Sonar lost its Twitter privileges after it was revealed it helped police forces monitor Black Lives Matter events and other protests. (Courtesy: mediasonar.com)

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A London, Ont., data mining company has been banned from Twitter and Instagram for selling surveillance software to North American police services to monitor people at Black Lives Matter events and other public protests.

Media Sonar lost its Twitter privileges in October after it was revealed that the firm was in violation of the social media giant's privacy policies.

"If Media Sonar creates other API keys [to connect with Twitter], we will terminate those as well and take further action as appropriate," wrote Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler. 

Facebook said in an email that it banned Media Sonar's access to its subsidiary, Instagram, last October as well, because the company did not demonstrate compliance with Facebook's platform policies. 

Media Sonar never had access to any of Facebook's non public API's, Facebook said.

Relationship with American police services dates back to 2014

Public documents obtained through access to information requests show the company billed itself to police forces as the "only vendor that allows public safety agencies to view social accounts covertly."

Matt Cagle

Matt Cagle with the American Civil Liberties Union says people shouldn't be treated like criminals for exercising their right to protest. (Courtesy: Matt Cagle)

It also provided at least one police force in California with a list of keywords and hashtags, including #blacklivesmatter and #Weorganize, to help with "proactive policing." 

The documents show the company's relationship with American police forces dates back to at least 2014.

"People shouldn't be treated like public safety threats simply for using social media and they shouldn't be placed in a police database simply because they attended one of these protests," said Matt Cagle with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from San Francisco. 

Tracking keywords

The California branch of the ACLU requested the material on Media Sonar, as well as other companies selling social media data to police. It said it alerted Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram.  

Media Sonar did not return calls to CBC News but its website states that it works to help clients analyze the sentiment of social media posts and can use location-based data to monitor threats. 

Media Sonar

One part of Media Sonar's keyword list.The hashtag #blacklivesmatter appears further down on the list. (Access to information)

Its software, according to documents, also allows clients to track an individual's followers, all of their posts and tweets of mention.

"That is what is so offensive about this," said Ann Cavoukian Ontario's former privacy commissioner.  "You want people to communicate freely and not be looking over their shoulder every time they tweet."  

Cavoukian, who now heads up Ryerson University's Privacy and Big Data Institute also notes the potential for racial profiling in the information provided by Media Sonar to police. 
 
"You can see the discrimination in putting forward the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. People who are associated could be branded in a really negative way that is highly unfair." 

Ann Cavoukian

Ann Cavoukian says it seems that Media Sonar used racial profiling in crafting its keywords. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Unclear whether Toronto police use Media Sonar

At least six police forces in California used Media Sonar's software, documents show. In Ontario, the company's home city of London said it does not use the interface, but it is unclear whether Toronto is a customer. 

"As a practice we do not discuss tools we use to conduct investigations," Toronto police Const. Craig Brister said.

The company's success has, however, been noted in Ontario's business community. One month after Twitter banned Media Sonar, it won the Ontario Chamber of Commerce 2016 Going Global Small Business Award.

Reached late Wednesday, a spokesperson with the chamber said they were unaware of the company's issues with the social media giant.