The company, headquartered in London, Ontario, sells software that allows clients to monitor social media posts for keywords. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Media Sonar has been selling its wares to police in California and encouraging them to track protesters using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #DontShoot. In October, Twitter revoked Media Sonar’s access to its data.
According to a Facebook spokesperson Motherboard spoke to over the phone, Media Sonar was also banned from accessing Facebook’s API last year because it violated the platform policies for developers. An Instagram spokesperson also confirmed over email that Media Sonar was banned from that platform for violating the its terms of service. Instagram is owned by Facebook.
Serious questions remain about which police agencies have gotten their hands on Media Sonar’s digital surveillance technology, and where. Motherboard has confirmed that police in Canada have used Media Sonar, and there are indications that Media Sonar’s technology is in use in countries outside of North America.
The York Regional Police expressed interest in the technology in 2013, the year the company was founded. A 2014 tender for a social media monitoring solution for the Halifax police shows that Media Sonar was a bidder, although they didn’t win the contract. A July 2015 report from the Guelph police notes that “Media Sonar is actively being used by members of the Intelligence Unit” for investigations into “extremism, firearms and drugs.” A 2015 article from TVO also reported that the Toronto police use Media Sonar.
Toronto Police Service spokesperson Mark Pugash declined to comment on the veracity of the TVO report, and declined to comment on whether the Toronto police still use Media Sonar, saying that the police do not comment on investigative techniques. The Guelph police board has not responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Canadian law enforcement has a history of tracking protesters. A 2015 document, unearthed in 2016 via an access to information request, describes a program in which the Royal Canadian Mounted Police monitored and tracked aboriginal protesters using social media. That report recommended that these practices continue.
There are also indications that the company has been selling its surveillance tools outside Canada and the US. In 2016, Media Sonar won the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s “going global” award for small businesses. This award is given to companies that implement a successful export strategy, and the award page states that the company “has been assisting organizations around the globe” to “[solve] crimes.”
Media Sonar has not responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.
According to a spokesperson from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the award is given to companies that achieve an annual growth in export sales of 35 percent, and make under $5 million per year.
A post on the company’s LinkedIn page notes that while the company started “first in North America,” the company has been bringing its offerings “into new geographies over the past year.” It’s unclear if these “new geographies” include repressive regimes known to buy Western surveillance technology.
If so, then Media Sonar would be in league with another small Canadian company called Netsweeper, based in Waterloo. Over the past several years, Canadian surveillance research hub Citizen Lab has exposed Netsweeper’s internet filtering business in places like Yemen and Bahrain.