Cities and Police Nationwide Spending Millions on Social Media Monitoring Software, New Brennan Center Map Shows

November 16, 2016

In the wake of the 2016 election, recent revelations that law enforcement used social media monitoring tools that touted their ability to track protests take on increased significance. Today, the Brennan Center for Justice released a new interactive mapping tool, which includes procurement data and public reporting, showing that local governments around the country are spending millions on these tools.

While social media monitoring products can serve legitimate public safety purposes, they also provide law enforcement agencies with powerful tools for tracking people’s movements and sentiments. Recent evidence shows Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram supplied commercial data feeds to social media monitoring companies advertising their software to monitor protests, revelations that prompted the termination of commercial access to several companies.

Among our key findings:

1.       Nationwide, at least 151 police departments, cities, and counties have collectively spent millions of dollars on social media monitoring software.

2.       Since the International Association of Police Chiefs has found that over 300 law enforcement agencies across the country use social media for listening or monitoring, and over 400 use it for intelligence purposes, these numbers undoubtedly understate the true total, both in number of jurisdictions and in overall expenditures.

3.       Big spenders include the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which spent nearly $200,000 over two and a half years; the County of Los Angeles, which also spent close to $200,000 over three years; and Harris County, Texas, which spent over $150,000 in the same number of years.

The Brennan Center based its findings on several sources: (1) news accounts, including from The Washington Post, New York Times, Daily Dot, and a number of others; (2) documents obtained by MuckRock, a nonprofit news site that provides a repository of hundreds of thousands of pages of original government documents, and by the ACLU through freedom of information requests; and (3) information gleaned from the government database SmartProcure.

Using all of these sources, the Brennan Center created a map depicting cities, counties, and police departments across the United States that have spent at least $10,000 on social media monitoring software. The map focuses on purchases of eight social media monitoring products for which data was readily available: Geofeedia, Media Sonar, Snaptrends (now reportedly closed), Dataminr, DigitalStakeout, PATHAR, Meltwater, and Babel Street.

These tools are far more powerful than looking up a profile or following a hashtag the way members of the public do. Law enforcement can use these powerful software products to read, interpret, and categorize millions of posts in mere minutes, allowing for the constant monitoring and archiving of information on millions of people’s activities. In addition, only a small fraction of jurisdictions have publicly-available policies on how to use social media to monitor civilians.

“We have to ensure that these tools are being used in a manner consistent with civil liberties, civil rights, and constitutional values,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “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.”

“Social media monitoring tools are a double-edged sword,” added Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “They can be used legitimately to investigate crimes, but they can also target protestors and political opponents. Given the extraordinary power of these tools to reveal intimate information about millions of Americans, it’s high time to develop concrete safeguards against abuse.”

The Brennan Center will continue to monitor and map municipal and law enforcement expenditures on social media surveillance tools as new information emerges.

For more information, contact Hasdai Westbrook at hasdai@changingmediagroup.com or 443-826-9516.