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How Police are Scanning All of Twitter to Detect Terrorist Threats

When Boston officials decided to monitor Twitter during this year’s marathon, they didn’t scan the site’s 500 million daily posts for signs of trouble.

Dataminr did that for them.

The company’s software sorts through millions of tweets for clues about major events or emerging threats, flagging mentions of everything from fires to suspicious packages and sending real-time alerts to customers.

Dataminr has been quietly working with public safety officials in Boston and three other cities with the aim of detecting potential criminal or terrorist activity bubbling up on Twitter before it happens.

Boston’s use of Dataminr was part of the city’s broader effort to tighten security at the 2014 marathon after last year’s bombings. At a time when eyewitnesses may tweet about an emergency before — or even instead of — calling 911, Dataminr’s co-founder Ted Bailey said his company offers a valuable tool to first responders.

“How can you afford to have these blind spots in your area?” Bailey said in an interview Monday at the company’s New York City office, where employees with Ph.D.’s in mathematics and linguistics sat in front of computers and tested Dataminr’s complex algorithm.

Dataminr is one of several companies marketing such products to police departments. A company called BrightPlanet is selling a tool called Blue Jay that allows law enforcement officers to listen to what gang members say on Twitter and track their movements. The FBI is also building its own application to monitor social media posts for words like “bomb,” “suspicious package” and “white powder.”

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