Sacramento Launches Controversial Program To Track Citizen's Social Media Posts


One California city is touting the early results of a new program allowing leaders to keep tabs on the local issues being discussed among residents online.

As KOVR reported, though, the social media monitoring service has also sparked backlash among some critics who see the potential for abuse of personal information.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon defended his city’s first-in-the-nation introduction of Zencity, a keyword monitoring program, last year.

He said city officials are now able to pinpoint areas of concern among residents earlier than if they waited until people started complaining in person. Shortly after it was rolled out, he said the system alerted the city to a rash of mailbox thefts.

“We saw the thing that most people were talking about were mailbox thefts,” Cabaldon said. “That’s something that we might not have noticed just by waiting for people to come to city hall or filing a complaint.”

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The system scans public posts on popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Cabaldon said the system then “uses artificial intelligence to spider through it and see, OK, what are people talking about, what are the key words, what are the key themes, what are the key topic areas.”

The data also determines whether the discussion on a particular topic is generally positive or negative.

Based on that information, he said city leaders receive a monthly report providing “feedback about the sentiment of the community.”

Are there legitimate privacy concerns in a program like Zencity?

While Cabaldon points to several issues he said were addressed more quickly because of this added information, privacy advocates are concerned that this program will follow the trajectory of some other tech companies.

Companies like Facebook and Google have long been criticized for the secretive and invasive methods by which they collected and stored user data.

The use of artificial intelligence alone in a system like this is enough to worry the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Peter Eckersley.

“There are ways this could go wrong,” he said. “Once you get into policing there are many more potential concerns around the use of artificial intelligence.”

Cabaldon dismissed such concerns as they apply to Zincity, though, insisting the program does not access personal information.

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“There’s no privacy issues because we’re not opening up anything that hasn’t already been published publicly for the purposes of being published,” he said.

The system is being used to supplement existing forms of civic engagement with positive results thus far, Cabaldon said.

“It allows us to hear the whole community and not just the loudest voices,” he said.

Nevertheless, it is the perceived threat of future abuses that leaves some residents uneasy.

“What we’re seeing is these tools are being rolled out in secret without the proper safeguards to prevent abuse,” said Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union.

When news of such a controversial program surfaces, he said it is “really important to have a conversation about how this tool works and to put the burden on the government and the city council to explain exactly what it’s going to be used for.”

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Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a wide range of newsrooms.
Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a variety of newsroom settings. After covering crime and other beats for newspapers and radio stations across the U.S., he served as managing editor at Western Journalism until 2017. He has also been a regular guest and guest host on several syndicated radio programs. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and son.
Texas Press Association, Best News Writing - 2012
Bachelor of Arts, Journalism - Averett University
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