Software used by several Michigan counties to gather information from publicly available social media posts is getting a second look over concerns it intrudes on individuals’ privacy.
Zencity, a company founded in 2016 with dual headquarters in New York City and Tel Aviv that works with more than 300 local governments — more than 90 percent of which are located in the U.S. — produces the software. Zencity has eight customers in Michigan, six of them counties: Lenawee, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, Midland and Ottawa.
Lansing is also a customer, the company’s vice president of partnerships, Michael Simon, wrote in an email.
Lenawee County signed its first contract with Zencity for its “Organic” software about two years ago to track discourse and promote more effective communication with residents during the pandemic, deputy county administrator Shannon Elliott wrote in an email.
But members of the county board of commissioners’ information technology and equalization committee voted last month to bring the current contract back up for review and possible cancellation at the board’s personnel and ways and means committee meeting.
“Organic” summarizes publicly available data posted on the internet and accessible to the general public, like posts on Twitter and public Facebook pages.
“There is no content available via Zencity Organic that isn’t available to any member of the public,” Simon wrote. “Organic assists Lenawee County representatives by automatically sifting through hundreds of thousands of such posts and comments a year (over 1 million in Lenawee County in the last year) to find the feedback related to things that county officials are responsible for, so that the county can be more responsive and more proactive.”
Organic does two things with this publicly available data: It sifts out comments from social media related to county responsibilities, such as emergency services and public health, from those that are not, and it categorizes these comments by topic and sentiment.
“These categories help busy human professionals to be able to analyze data quickly and efficiently, making better use of limited government resources and time,” Simon wrote. “Organic also enables the county to manage social media posting and allows for one person to manage multiple social media accounts in one place in order to maximize efficiency of government personnel, reducing staff cost.”
Commissioner Nancy Jenkins-Arno, who said she doesn’t have a problem with the county using social media to reach residents, said she has heard concerns “across the political spectrum” on the use of Zencity’s platforms, including Organic. She said commissioners should be getting out into their communities to gauge resident sentiment and bring their concerns back to the full commission.
“(Organic) is a way to ‘listen in’ on what residents are talking about on social media sites,” she wrote in an email. “While it’s true that people are speaking in a public forum, they are not informed that their conversations are being monitored by Zencity, and what is said is being turned over to county government. That is creepy to me.
“Just because the government can, doesn’t mean it should be listening in on people’s conversations. It would be easy to think that the information collected by Zencity accurately reflects everyone’s opinion, and use it to direct decision making, but of course that’s not true.”
Commissioner Dustin Krasny went further, raising concerns over Zencity’s site in Tel Aviv.
“I believe at a maximum Zencity is a gross invasion of the personal privacy rights of our citizens and at a minimum a huge waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” he wrote in an email. “I believe this issue resonates across party lines and is an issue that we should be working on which both the left and right agree on, which is to protect individuals’ liberty and privacy rights.
“Zencity is a company that is part of Israel’s prominent and profitable cyber surveillance industry. Surveilling and data mining Lenawee County residents is not listening to and engaging the public — it’s the exact opposite. I consistently go to my local township and village meetings and stay active on a daily basis, meeting with residents of my district and the county at large. That’s our job as commissioners and the administrator’s office.”
The county began with a trial version of the software in 2021 and signed its first contract with Zencity the same year for 10 months at a cost of $19,999 for Organic. The county’s current contract with Zencity, signed in November of last year, costs $48,000 for a 12-month period and gives the county access to Organic as well as Zencity Community Survey.
Midland County Administrator Bridgette Gransden said Midland County began using Zencity’s services in mid-2020, also during the pandemic.
“We started with the tool that searches for and analyzes organic public sentiment from both formal and informal media channels,” Gransden wrote in an email. “The insight we receive from this information gives us some sense of where the public conversations are trending on various topics of interest.
“We have been able to use this tool as a community resource not just a county resource … We use the platform to get feedback from residents on specific topics of interest that our team is looking to move the needle on.”
Gransden said Midland County hasn’t come up against controversy.
“Zencity is not accessing data that is not available to others on social media,” Gransden wrote. “If you post info on social media and your account is not private, then it is essentially open for others to access. I would say I agree that talking to people face-to-face is a splendid way to communicate and that the more options for communication with our local governments the better.”
— Mary Lowe is a reporter for The Daily Telegram.