Internal emails show that the U.S. Marshals Service received regular alerts from Dataminr, a company that persistently monitors social media for corporate and government clients, about the precise time and location of both ongoing and planned abortion rights demonstrations. Dataminr flagged the social media posts of protest organisers, participants, and bystanders, and used Dataminr’s privileged access to the unrestricted Twitter data to monitor constitutionally protected speech.
American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project lawyer Jennifer Granick said that “This is a technique that’s ripe for abuse, but it’s not subject to either legislative or judicial oversight."
The documents obtained by The Intercept are from April to July 2022, after the Supremes decided to drag the US backwards where women were told what to do with their bodies by their partners, or politicans. Following the leak of a draft decision that the court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the cornerstone of reproductive rights in the U.S., pro-abortion advocates staged massive protests and rallies across the country.
Dataminr has form on helping law enforcement agencies monitor mass demonstrations. In 2020, The Intercept reported that the company had surveilled Black Lives Matter protests for the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder of George Floyd.
In a typical alert, a Dataminr analyst wrote a caption summarising the social media data in question, with a link to the original post. On May 3, 2022, the day after Politico’s explosive report on the draft decision, New York-based artist Alex Remnick tweeted about a protest planned later that day in Foley Square, a small park in downtown Manhattan surrounded by local and federal government buildings. Dataminr quickly forwarded their tweet to the Marshals. That evening, Dataminr continued to relay information about the Foley Square rally, now in full swing, with alerts like “protestors block nearby streets near Foley Square,” as well as photos of demonstrators, all gleaned from Twitter.
The following week, Dataminr alerted the Marshals when pro-abortion demonstrators assembled at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan, coinciding with a regular anti-abortion event held by the church. Between 9:06 and 9:53 that morning, the Marshals received five separate updates on the St. Patrick’s protest, including an estimated number of attendees, again based on the posts of unwitting Twitter users.
In the weeks and months that followed, Dataminr tipped off the Marshals to dozens of protests, including many pro-abortion gatherings, from Maine to Wisconsin to Virginia, both before and during the demonstrations.