Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, has bought millions of dollars worth of software from a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect “sentiment and emotion” in online posts, according to a cache of documents obtained by 404 Media.
CBP told 404 Media it is using technology to analyze open source information related to inbound and outbound travelers who the agency believes may threaten public safety, national security, or lawful trade and travel. In this case, the specific company called Fivecast also offers “AI-enabled” object recognition in images and video, and detection of “risk terms and phrases” across multiple languages, according to one of the documents.
Marketing materials promote the software’s ability to provide targeted data collection from big social platforms like Facebook and Reddit, but also specifically names smaller communities like 4chan, 8kun, and Gab. 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 news signals CBP’s continued use of artificial intelligence in its monitoring of travelers and targets, which can include U.S. citizens. In May, I revealed CBP’s use of another AI tool to screen travelers which could link peoples’ social media posts to their Social Security number and location data. This latest news shows that CBP has deployed multiple AI-powered systems, and provides insight into what exactly these tools claim to be capable of while raising questions about their accuracy and utility.
“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,’” Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told 404 Media in an email.
404 Media obtained the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests with CBP and other U.S. law enforcement agencies.
One document obtained by 404 Media marked “commercial in confidence” is an overview of Fivecast’s “ONYX” product. In it Fivecast says its product can be used to target individuals or groups, single posts, or events. As well as collecting from social media platforms big and small, Fivecast users can also upload their own “bulk” data, the document says. Fivecast says its tool has been built “in consultation” with Five Eyes law enforcement and intelligence agencies, those being agencies from the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Specifically on building “person-of-interest” networks, the tool “is optimized for this exact requirement.”