Real or not, ‘Stand with me at Standing Rock’ viral post a lesson in scary local police surveillance tools

The post in question
The post in question

It reads like a typical Internet hoax that catches viral fire:

“Stand with me at Standing Rock,” the post begins.  “The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Standing Rock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps.”

It then urges the reader to use Facebook’s check-in feature to claim they are in North Dakota, with the idea that doing so will make life harder for law enforcement using social media to track protesters.

“Water Protecters are calling on EVERYONE to check-in at Standing Rock, ND to overwhelm and confuse them,” it continues. “This is concrete action that can protect people putting their bodies and well-beings on the line that we can do without leaving our homes.”

Is it a hoax?  It does have elements of a hoax…I’ve seen versions that replace “Morton County” with local officials, suggesting whoever dashed it off, and whoever shared it early on, didn’t do elaborate fact checking.  Anything with this kind of an abrupt call to action certainly seems hoax-y.

In an attempt to verify or debunk the claim, I called the Morton County sheriff’s office.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” said the operator who answered the phone, referring to the viral post.  When I explained it to him, he said “There are a lot of lies being spread on Facebook” about the sheriff’s department.  He said a public information officer would would me call back. No call yet.

(UPDATE, 4 p.m. ET — I’m awaiting an email from the public information officer, but Snopes has now been told that the department “is not and does not follow Facebook check-ins for the protest camp or any location. This claim / rumor is absolutely false.”)

Hoax or not, what’s intriguing about today’s viral status update is that — while it might sound fanciful — it’s based in a very stark reality.  Local police are using social media to track crowds in a way that would make the authors of the Bill of Rights shudder.  And would probably be declared illegal, should they ever get their day in court.

I wrote about this two years ago, when describing a tech firm called SnapTrends that was making inroads at police departments around the country.

The firm boasted in marketing materials that it could help police stop crime before it starts by vacuuming up social media chatter and warning police of gathering threats.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Called “SnapTrends,” the web-based service sifts through every Facebook status, Tweet, Instagram photo, YouTube video and other social media post within a designated area. That “listening lens” can be focused on “any size or shaped area you want, as big as a country or as small as a city block.

“Accessing data in real time is critical to law enforcement officials who don’t want to squander an opportunity to stop criminal behavior before it starts,” reads one bit of marketing material. “SnapTrends enables you to leverage open social networks to spot ‘chatter’ that might give an indication that trouble is about to happen,” says another.

The threat wasn’t theoretical. An ACLU analysis recently revealed the similar software from SnapTrends competitor Geofeedia was used during the Ferguson riots.  The ACLU report, published earlier this month, got Twitter and Facebook to cut off Geofeedia from special access it had to the social media giants’ feeds.

“Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color,” the ACLU wrote. “Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle could easily target neighborhoods where people of color live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as “overt threats.” We know for a fact that in Oakland and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests.”

So, hoax or not, the claims in today’s virual status update are based in reality.  Still, I’d urge users to think twice before following the post’s instructions, and passing it along.  We’ve seen plenty of example of viral posts like this turning out to be hoaxes, and they can be used to gather data about victims.  Folks who check into North Dakota today would form a great marketing list for a company targeting a certain demographic, for example.  Without any kind of official verification, it should be treated as the rumor that it is.

Finally, the notion that multiple check-ins would foil some kind of social media monitoring effort is at best an untested strategy. It reminds me of “Jam Echelon Day” — a grounds-root effort back in (gulp!) 1999 to clog U.S. surveillance computers that were allegedly slurping up all the world’s Internet traffic looking for terrorists.  Participants were instructed to use trigger words like “bomb” in emails and, ahem, faxes, to overwhelm the surveillance.  Ed Snowden revealed the idea of Echelon to be frighteningly realistic, but it was still  a bad idea for Internet users to send around emails  referencing explosive devices.

As I learn more, I’ll pass it on.

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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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