Customs and Border Protection has shelled out millions of dollars since 2019 to a software company that developed an artificial intelligence surveillance tool that detects "sentiment and emotion" in social media posts, reported 404 Media, a journalist-founded independent digital media company.
According to 404 Media, documents obtained via public records requests revealed that CBP has invested in technology from Fivecast that allows it to scan open-source information on social media platforms.
The outlet reported that CBP is using the technology to monitor inbound and outbound travelers who may be a threat to public safety, national security, or lawful trade and travel.
A document obtained by 404 Media revealed Fivecast's data collection and analytics product as "commercial in confidence."
Fivecast's AI-powered software, "ONYX," "provides advanced targeted data collection across open source platforms" and can be used for "targeting of individuals, groups, pages, individual posts, events or standing searching."
Marketing materials about the product state that ONYX can detect "risk terms and phrases" in images and videos on Facebook, Reddit, 4chan, 8kun, Twitter, Telegram, Discord, and Gab. It can also detect objects in videos and images.
Its "AI-enabled risk analytics" can identify terms and phrases in multiple languages as well as determine the "sentiment and emotion" of online posts. The program charts "anger," "disgust," "fear," "joy," "sadness," and "surprise" detected over time.
Fivecast built the product "in consultation" with the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group, a group of international law enforcement agencies comprising the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The tool was specifically "optimized" to build the Person-of-Interest Network using only "basic bio details."
According to 404 Media, CBP has secured multiple contracts with Fivecast over recent years. CBP paid the technology company $350,000 in August 2019, over $650,000 in September 2020, $260,000 in August 2021, nearly $950,000 in September 2021, and close to $1.17 million in September 2022.
Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, told 404 Media, "CBP should not be secretly buying and deploying tools that rely on junk science to scrutinize people's social media posts, claim to analyze their emotions, and identify purported 'risks.'"
"The public knows far too little about CBP's Counter Network Division, but what we do know paints a disturbing picture of an agency with few rules and access to an ocean of sensitive personal data about Americans," Toomey continued. "The potential for abuse is immense."
A CBP spokesperson told 404 Media, "The Department of Homeland Security is committed to protecting individuals' privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. DHS uses various forms of technology to execute its mission, including tools to support investigations related to threats to infrastructure, illegal trafficking on the dark web, cross-border transnational crime, and terrorism. DHS leverages this technology in ways that are consistent with its authorities and the law."
Fivecast did not respond to a request for comment, 404 Media reported.
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