Customs and Border Protection Spent Millions On AI Surveillance Tool to Detect “Sentiment and Emotion” On Social Media


The new way customs agents are trying to scan travelers? A multi-million dollar AI surveillance tool that scans the social media of travelers to detect “sentiment and emotion”.

According to a report in 404 Media, an independent, journalist-founded media company, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, has secretly spent millions of dollars on such surveillance software from Fivecast.

404 media discovered the acquisition by using public records requests, as obviously no state agency would be forthcoming with acquisitions like these.

According to the marketing materials used by Fivecast, this surveillance tool can provide “targeted data collection” from most major online forums and even lesser-known smaller communities. Facebook and Reddit are the biggest social media platforms authorities can parse to detect “risk terms and phrases”, but they can also investigate niche forums like 4chan, 8kun and Gab.

From the 404 report:

“To demonstrate its functionality, Fivecast promotional materials explain how the software was able to track social media posts and related Persons-of-Interest starting with just “basic bio details” from a New York Times Magazine article about members of the far-right paramilitary Boogaloo movement. 404 Media also obtained leaked audio of a Fivecast employee explaining how the tool could be used against trafficking networks or propaganda operations.”

The tool apparently trawls through social media posts and assigns emotions to their tone, including “anger”, “disgust” or “joy”, and can even spit out charts of the emotional journeys of the posters.”

On their website, Fivecast posted a blog entry from their CEO, Dr. Brenton Cooper, which reveals that the tool was actually built in collaboration with authorities from both the US and Australia:

“All of this intelligence needs to be extracted in an environment with hundreds of different data feeds across many different platforms and analysts also need to understand the changing activity over time. And, this is for just one extremist group. It’s an extremely challenging task!

The history of Fivecast can be traced to this very challenge – the capabilities of our flagship digital intelligence solution, Fivecast ONYX, were developed through a joint project which brought together government departments and agencies from Australia and the United States, with world-leading research institutions to tackle the big data challenges facing national security and law enforcement.”

Some security experts quoted in the report say that there is no way a tool can accurately categorize text like this, and represents an overreach from authorities’ parts, Customs and Border Protection has spent increasingly large amounts of money on the tool.

“CBP’s contracts for Fivecast software have stretched into the millions of dollars, according to public procurement records and internal CBP documents obtained by 404 Media. CBP spent nearly $350,000 in August 2019; more than $650,000 in September 2020; $260,000 in August 2021; close to $950,000 in September 2021; and finally almost $1.17 million in September 2022.

Of course, both authorities and regular individuals are free to peruse social media posts in order to identify threats. A new Apple TV series is focused on an individual exactly like this, a woman who has spent the past few years identifying potential terrorists and handing them over to the authorities.

Also read: A Scary WFH Future? 15% of Workers Are Not Aware Of Remote Work Surveillance and How Bosses Are Monitoring Them

Image by Thomas Ulrich via Pixabay

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