In which I learn about our use of “Dataminr”

I have three things to say about this.

The Houston Police Department will stay in the ranks of law enforcement agencies around the country using software to monitor social media for information on criminal activity following a City Council vote on Wednesday.

Council members approved without debate or dissent spending $108,000 on software from Dataminr, a company that has drawn concern from civil liberties advocates while touting its ability to alert police to breaking events.

Supporters say Dataminr’s products do not raise privacy concerns because they rely on publicly available posts from social media users. Critics, however, have raised alarms about agencies using Dataminr products to zero in on abortion and Black Lives Matter protesters.


Ángel Díaz, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Law, said he was not convinced by the company’s protests that it does not offer a surveillance tool.

“It’s sort of a distinction without difference to me, because ultimately what they are providing is information about specific accounts,” he said. “They are providing an ability to surveil all tweets, and to pull out specific tweets that they believe are evidence of potential criminal activity. I don’t see how that is not surveillance.”

Díaz said he was concerned, for instance, about reports that company employees were tasked to look for information about crime on the South Side of Chicago.

“The question becomes, who is setting up the kinds of alerts that they are receiving. Who is being placed under this web of suspicion, and who is being ignored?” he said. “There is a way in which we are confirming our previous beliefs about a community based on who we choose to run searches against.”

Christopher Rivera, a spokesperson for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he was concerned the police department could use the tool to focus on protesters.

“Ultimately, what these protesters are asking for is better situations for themselves,” he said. “Yet, police will use it to deter them and surveil them and oftentimes criminalize protected speech.”

The Houston Police Department did not answer a question about whether it has placed any limitations on its use of the software.

1. I can’t believe that ShotSpotter failed to take this opportunity to call itself “ShotSpottr”.

2. A little Google searching did not find me any information about how effective Dataminr is. Like, do they make any claims about helping to reduce crime by some amount? I found one study from 2022 about the use of AI to predict where crimes would occur, but that wasn’t helpful for this purpose. My point is simply this: We are spending this money on this tool, as we are also spending money on ShotSpotter. What value are we getting for that money? Seems like a reasonable enough question to ask, and yet here we are.

3. This I think is my single biggest concern about Mayor Whitmire’s agenda for crime and policing, which is that we’re going to spend a bunch of money on the police and give them what they want but we’re not going to create any metrics or conduct any audits to determine if we’re spending that money wisely and effectively. We’re just going to throw money at it, and if crime goes down we’ll say it worked, and if crime doesn’t go down we’ll say we need to do more. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about this.

Related Posts:

This entry was posted in Crime and Punishment, Local politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.