BrightPlanet has created a new online product called “BlueJay,” which it is advertising as a "Law Enforcement Twitter Crime Scanner." The tool allows users to monitor virtually every single public tweet published by Twitter users in real time for indicators of crime or wrongdoing. Users can set up virtual perimeters or geo-fences to track tweets specific to those areas. BrightPlanet’s main business is “open source intelligence”: searching the “deep web”—those parts of the World Wide Web that are public but which regular search engines cannot reach.
According to ArsTechnica, BlueJay users can enter a set of Twitter accounts, keywords and locations for the application to scan within a defined perimeter, and BlueJay will return all matching tweets in real-time. These capabilities make BlueJay quite attractive for law enforcement agencies and local police which can monitor tweets based on hashtags such as #gunfire, #meth or #protest. If a tweet has GPS information attached to it, BlueJay will plot the location on a map.
BlueJay could allow governments and their agencies to spy on their own citizens and those of other countries. Police could randomly scan the population, using a potentially intrusive technique to search for criminals, sex offenders and illegal immigrants. Although BlueJay is intended to monitor for crimes, it could certainly be used to spy on Twitter users for other purposes.
While BrightPlanet claims this innovative strategy will make communities safer, the process is raising red flags among some people, who say it amounts to an invasion of privacy and a possible violation of civil liberties. Part of the problem is that BlueJay doesn’t distinguish between who gets targeted—or what the intention is behind the monitoring. Are police using it to target criminals or lawful protesters? Are they using it to better understand how drugs flow in certain neighbourhoods or to learn what people are saying about the police themselves? And how are private corporations using the tool?
Any of these uses might result in law enforcement agencies, the government or others having more information on all of us without any accountability or following of proper procedures, such as obtaining a warrant. BlueJay allows police to snoop on the Twitter tendencies of law-abiding residents, and walk a fine line along the regulations against unlawful search and self-incrimination. In addition, most people don’t understand where this data is going, how it is being used and stored for years.
The onus is on law enforcement agencies and governing bodies to ensure that they have proper policies in place for disciplined and responsible use, with appropriate punishments for anyone operating outside of policy. Police and intelligence agencies (not to mention employers and marketers) are already using public social networking data to watch people, do we want this advanced tool to become a general surveillance mechanism, used routinely on the general public? Does BlueJay permit its users to indiscriminately violate Twitter users’ privacy or other civil liberties? Or does anyone have the right to indiscriminately view public tweets and use that information (so long as they act within the law)?