According to a recent roundup of reporting, purchase orders, and other materials from the Brennan Center for Justice—a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice—151 counties, cities, and law enforcement agencies have spent at least $10,000 to procure social media monitoring technology in the U.S.
Collectively, law enforcement agencies have spent millions of dollars on this, but some of the largest spenders included the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which spent nearly $200,000 over two and a half years and the County of Los Angeles, which also spent close to $200,000 over three years.
Social media monitoring allows police to constantly target, track, and archive information posted on social media from millions of people. It can be used by law enforcement to monitor and log posts on popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, regarding everything from protests to potential threats.
In fact, recent evidence from the ACLU showed that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram supplied commercial data feeds to Geofeedia, a company who has advertised their software as a good way to monitor protests and individual activists. As these revelations came to light, though, the aforementioned companies canceled Geofeedia’s access to their data.
Here is a brief overview of how Geofeedia works:
That being said, Goefeedia isn’t as unique as you might think. There are many companies that boast similar capabilities and are marketing their products to law enforcement.
For example, last year the ACLU released a report showing that the Fresno, CA police department was using social media surveillance tools from MediaSonar, which bragged about their ability tp identify “threats to public safety.” How did they do so? By monitoring hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed, #PoliceBrutality, and #ItsTimeforChange.
The Brennan Center’s extensive roundup likely does not even illuminate the full extent of law enforcement’s purchases when it comes to social media monitoring products though.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the International Association of Police, over 300 law enforcement agencies across the country currently use social media for listening or monitoring, while over 400 use it for intelligence purposes.
Of those law enforcement agencies surveyed, 73.9 percent of them who were not currently using social media are considering adopting it. The survey also found that 85.5 percent of agencies reported that social media has helped solve crimes in their jurisdiction.
Despite its enthusiastic adoption by law enforcement agencies, only a small number of these agencies jurisdictions have publicly available policies on how to use social media to monitor civilians, the Brennan Center argues.
“We have to ensure that these tools are being used in a manner consistent with civil liberties, civil rights, and constitutional values,” says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, in a statement. “It is critical that elected leaders and police departments be transparent about the social media monitoring services they use, how taxpayer money is spent, and what happens to the data.”
It seems that the use of social media monitoring programs is growing, but to what extent, and in what ways, remains unclear. If citizens are to have a say in, and indeed knowledge of, how these tools are used, greater transparency is needed.