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Curtis Waltman
Motherboard

Newly released records from the Seattle Police Dept. illustrate the formidable capabilities of Babel Street’s software and offers a look into who is using it.

After Geofeedia’s highly publicized PR disaster, in which Chicago Police were found to have used the social media surveillance platform to track racial justice protests and gatherings, the social media monitoring company saw Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram cut off its data streams. Arguably the three most valuable API streams for social media sites, it would make sense for law enforcement to try and find an alternative software. A company called Babel Street, hailing from Reston, Virginia, might just be the answer.

Newly released records from the Seattle Police Department indicate that in March of 2016, the agency acquired a two month trial run of Babel Street’s Babel X software and Open Source Intelligence training. The purchase ran the department $6,500. The price of a one year Babel X subscription is $18,500, per a quote for the Army National Guard, which for some reason wound up in this SPD release. That price is notably lower than what Geofeedia charged for a year long contract, $26,000.

The emails included in release indicate that Seattle PD are one of many users of Babel Street software, and are soon to be joined by the US Secret Service. Some emails with the FBI San Francisco Field Office clearly show that the FBI is also using Babel Street programs, and illustrate that SPD’s reason of interest for the Babel Street test run was to learn how the software is utilized to “support a major event.” The FBI recommended that Seattle Police reach out to San Francisco PD to learn more about how they used it when nearby Santa Clara hosted Super Bowl 50 (a Freedom of Information Act request I filed has not been answered so far by the SFPD). The FBI was apparently too busy to deal with SPD’s request for assistance.

Babel Street also seems to be making a substantial push into the private market. Francesca Leiweke-Bodie, Vice President of Business Development at the Oakview Group reached out to Seattle PD for any recommendations for social media surveillance software. Oakview Group is a collective of sports stadiums and entertainment venues, and was looking into purchasing the Babel X software per the recommendation of Captain Jim Dermody, head of Seattle PD’s Intelligence & Analysis Section. Dermody also wrote that he was trying to link up the Seattle Seahawks with Babel Street, since the Carolina Panthers already use the software.

The release also came with several pages of promotional material. Along with bragging about the high-profile clients they have like the FBI, the military’s Special Operations Command, and the Australian Attorney General’s Office, they include a list of the exact capabilities, explaining the depth and efficacy of Babel Street’s software. Babel X has access to over 25 social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and to Twitter’s firehose (with special data restrictions due to Twitter’s own strict regulations). Babel X can also surveil millions of URL’s including the deep web. The software can instantly translate over 200 languages, and can set up geo-fences around areas of special interest, and has highly customizable filtering options including for hashtags, emojis, handles, names, and keywords. Users can also filter for numerical sequences like credit card or social security numbers.

Babel Street’s filtering options are extremely precise, and allow for the user to screen for dates, times, data type, language, and—interestingly enough—sentiment. Their website includes a short paragraph on this sentiment aspect which claims that they “possess the most sophisticated sentiment analysis tool on the market. Derived from collaboration with top university linguistic programs, Babel Street boasts the ability to evaluate sentiment in 19 languages—far exceeding the capacity of any other competitor.”

In the brochure it asserts that, “This proprietary lexicon contains the preponderance of words and phrases in a given language that can be used to describe or reference an attitude, emotion or intent.” It seems from an included pie chart that sentiment is defined as either positive or negative, with each being given a percentage value. Sentiment apparently means the software scores posts based on attitude, intent, and emotion and then relates that data back to the goals of the user. One can even use this feature on a geographical heat map, with which they can survey sentiment over days, weeks, and months.

Data from Babel X can also be imported to Peter Thiel’s Palantir analytic software, and other platforms. In addition to linking with big data giants, it seems Babel Street really prides itself on being the first to discover the thirteenth issue of Dabiq (ISIS’s magazine), and sent out a release to its clients as an example of the kind of work its analysis team is capable of. When an agency or company buys a Babel Street program it gets access to intelligence training, and round the clock tech and analytic support.

Babel Street has an exceptionally powerful open source intelligence product, and with Geofeedia’s ongoing death spiral, it is certainly a company to keep your eye on. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if more law enforcement agencies and private businesses began to look into buying the Babel X software. When reached for comment, Seattle PD told us “the department is no longer using the software.” Whether they are simply weighing their options or have moved on to another platform remains to be seen.

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