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ZeroFOX Executives Defend Labeling Black Lives Matter Activists As Threats

Executives of the “social media risk management” firm ZeroFOX have defended an assessment the company produced for Baltimore, which labeled Black Lives Matter activists as “threat actors.”

After Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray, an uprising, which included rioting, occurred. ZeroFOX offered pro bono assistance to city officials and produced a “confidential” report identifying supposed threats to the city. It recommended steps city officials could take to protect security, including keeping a close eye on protest leaders.

The assessment [PDF] was released to journalists as part of a cache of 7,000 internal emails sent during the uprising by city officials. It singled out two prominent activists, Deray McKesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie as “high” threats.

ZeroFOX CEO James Foster and ZeroFOX cofounder Evan Blair told Technical.ly Baltimore, “the report wasn’t designed to be taken to mean that the protest leaders were out to do harm. ZeroFOX’s system likely identified the protest leaders due to the amount of followers they have on Twitter.”

According to Foster, ZeroFOX’s system identified the “biggest influencers,” which are typically “people that have the biggest voices, the most reach.” These individuals were flagged for monitoring because they were “main coordinators of the protests.”

“In any intelligence report, you would have to include two of the most well-known folks that are organizing activities,” Blair explained. “If we didn’t include those two people, they would say [we] didn’t understand two well-known people in the whole Baltimore protest.”

DeRay McKesson is a civil rights activist from Minnesota. Elzie is from St. Louis. At most, McKesson and Elzie agitated for protests in Baltimore to continue. But neither played a key role in the uprising unfolding on the ground so this is a bogus justification for including them in the report.

More importantly, the notion that those with the “biggest voices” and the “most reach” must be monitored reflects an authoritarian view that protest is where violent threats are most likely to originate.

Both of the ZeroFOX executives appear to have a view similar to the view J. Edgar Hoover had toward organizing by black people, especially black students.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of expeditious, thorough, and discreet handling of these cases,” Hoover declared in in a November 4, 1970 memo with “Racial Matters” and “Black Student Groups on College Campuses” as the subject headings.

“The violence, destruction, confrontation, and disruptions on campuses make it mandatory that we utilize to its capacity our intelligence-gathering capacity.”

As Betty Medsger wrote in her book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,”

Black students were regarded as potentially violent and therefore as appropriate subjects to be watched and to have their actions recorded in FBI files.

ZeroFOX’s perspective clearly is that activists like McKesson and Elzie pose a potential for violence. The company had no problem with stigmatizing them as “threat actors” by including them in their pro bono assessment.

In fact, the company itself claims to help “organizations protect their employees and families from threats coming via social media, a technique that terrorist groups have recently adopted to target the military and military spouses.” The same technique was applied to activists fueling the Baltimore uprising.

The two activists were labeled “physical” threats, not “cyber” threats. Given the history of police brutality toward protesters in situations where riots have been reported, designating them as threats could have resulted in violent arrests.

Additionally, Blair can claim all he wants that the report was not meant to suggest the activists were out to do harm, but take a look at how they were listed in the report:

This was not a mere effort to put the city on notice that these are protesters with high influence. It suggested they may pose a “physical” threat to the city of Baltimore.

Even if they had just notifying the city in an innocent manner that these are two key organizers, that would be wrong too. No security firm should be engaging in COINTELPRO-style tracking of activists.

In another interview, Foster told the Baltimore Business Journal, “Our intent was merely to offer help and it was taken.” He could not “fathom” why people would think the company was trying to “fear monger.”

Foster tried to diminish his responsibility for the contents of the report by saying the software is “designed to pick up on social media users who seem to have a strong influence and identify trends among the hundreds of thousands of tweets sent every minute.” He said “it is up to human analysts to determine whether the data is useful in pointing to credible threats.”

Yet, Foster ignores, with great indifference, the fact that any risk assessment is supposed to be used to predict dangerous events that may happen next so they can be prevented. Anyone included will automatically be considered a threat to be taken seriously. If the data used was reliable, there is no reason for anyone—in this case, Baltimore city officials—to question whether “threat actors” are really “threat actors.”

City officials had their own list of social media postings, which they labeled as “threats.” It included postings from McKesson. So, it is absurd to think the assessment from ZeroFOX did not lead city officials to consider the identified activists as potential activists, who law enforcement needed to watch.

ZeroFOX labeled a young black man in Baltimore, @KINGDACEO, a “medium physical” threat solely because he was “coordinating supplies for protesters.”

In that sense, it is evident ZeroFOX’s focus went beyond protecting city officials from security threats. ZeroFOX also wanted to do what it could to help the city contain the protests so an uprising against an unjust act by police would not keep growing.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."