US Marshals service reportedly monitored abortion protests with Dataminr

The U.S. Marshals office, which is responsible for protecting the federal court system, is facing scrutiny for receiving alerts about pro-abortion social media chatter from the monitoring service Dataminr. 

Internal emails obtained by The Intercept reportedly showed the Marshal’s Service receiving information about protests following the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs. Those included tweets about events like the protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

According to The Intercept, the Marshals received email digests based on particular search terms. The outlet said the service subscribed to topics like “‘SCOTUS Mentions,’ ‘Federal Courthouses and Personnel Hazards_V2,’ ‘Public Safety Critical Events,’ ‘Attorneys,’ and ‘Officials.’” Emails reportedly indicated that the service would receive notice of mentions of certain political figures like judges and state attorneys general.

The outlet reported:

The lists suggest that the Marshals were not specifically seeking information on abortion rallies; rather, the agency had cast such a broad surveillance net that large volumes of innocuous First Amendment-protected activity regularly got swept up as potential security threats. What the Marshals did with the information Dataminr collected remains unknown.

The Intercept’s discovery as well as recent events in the abortion debate have fueled an age-old debate about the balance between security and civil liberties. 

As Live Action News previously noted, pro-life centers encountered threats, vandalism, and even fire bombing as the nation awaited the final decision in Dobbs. The Department of Homeland Security even released a memo in May that warned of a “significant increase in violent threats—many made online via social media and some of which are under investigation—directed toward some US Supreme Court Justices and the Supreme Court building.”

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the leaked opinion, has gone as far as to argue that he and the other justices who signed onto his opinion were “targets of assassination.” And, in fact, a California man who plotted to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh was arrested in Maryland.

According to The Intercept, Dataminr sent a series of alerts related to the protests planned at or near the homes of Supreme Court justices. Other alerts seemed not to indicate threats. For example, one showed a fan account for Timothee Chalamet saying “i would destroy the met gala.” “Destroy” in this context is presumably slang for dominating or stealing the show, as the outlet noted. Another seemed to contain incoherent spam.

Monitoring Twitter posts is somewhat different than surveilling private venues or even public street corners. Its users are deliberately broadcasting messages for the public to see. Still, experts interviewed by The Intercept have argued that the U.S. Marshals went too far in their apparent attempts to keep the peace. 

“The more it’s made public that law enforcement is gathering up this info broadly about U.S. residents and citizens, it has a chilling effect on whether people are willing to express themselves and attend protests and plan protests,” said Mary Pat Dwyer, the academic program director of the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown University. 

Another, Jennifer Granick of the ACLU, argued that Dataminr’s “firehose” feature, which allows clients to comb through Twitter posts in real time, is “ripe for abuse, but it’s not subject to either legislative or judicial oversight.” Granick also argued that “a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of protests at courthouses pose any kind of risk of either property damage or personal injury.”

Twitter policy also forbids third parties from using the platform to monitor “sensitive events” like protests without the company’s consent. The social media giant reportedly didn’t respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Neither did the U.S. Marshals. 

Dataminr, however, denied violating Twitter’s policy. In a statement, Dataminr spokesperson Georgia Walker reportedly said: “Dataminr supports all public sector clients with a product called First Alert which was specifically developed with input from Twitter, and fully complies with Twitter’s policies and the policies of all our data providers.” 

Walker added that “First Alert delivers breaking news alerts enabling first responders to respond more quickly to public safety emergencies. First Alert is not permitted to be used for surveillance of any kind by First Alert users. First Alert provides a public good while ensuring maximum protections for privacy and civil liberties.”

This isn’t the first time law enforcement has encountered scrutiny for suspicions that it monitored activists in the abortion debate. Live Action President Lila Rose previously called out the FBI for allegedly using an undercover informant to record a meeting of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising activists. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) sent Attorney General Merrick Garland a letter requesting additional information on the alleged informant’s actions. 

“Allegations that the FBI is spying on pro-life gatherings in tandem with the rise in high-profile FBI investigations into pro-life Americans raise well-founded concerns for millions of Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. “The American people deserve the truth – are their tax dollars and federal law enforcement agencies being used to spy on pro-life Americans?”

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