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Cross-posted from The Nation.

On Novem­ber 8, more than 130 million Amer­ic­ans turned out to cast their ballots in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. While a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion is a crit­ical moment in a demo­cracy, demo­cracy is a year-round endeavor, not just a quad­ren­nial exper­i­ment. And a well-func­tion­ing demo­cracy requires trans­par­ency about the govern­ment’s oper­a­tions, espe­cially law enforce­ment. That increas­ingly means trans­par­ency around the use of social media.

Last week, the Bren­nan Center for Justice released a map show­ing that 151 police depart­ments, cities, and counties across the coun­try have collect­ively spent millions of dollars on soft­ware enabling them to monitor activ­ity on social medi­a—a number that almost certainly under­states both the number of juris­dic­tions and the amounts expen­ded. These tools allow agen­cies to mine social media posts for indi­vidu­als’ loca­tion and other data; Face­book, Twit­ter, and Instagram even supplied special data feeds to compan­ies that allowed law enforce­ment to track protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

Accord­ing to the Bren­nan Center’s research, 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. Only a small frac­tion of the juris­dic­tions surveyed have publicly-avail­able policies on how to use social media to monitor civil­ians.

The new revel­a­tions are not surpris­ing. In a recent survey conduc­ted by the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Chiefs of Police, over half of the respond­ing law enforce­ment agen­cies repor­ted that they used social media for “listen­ing/monit­or­ing,” and three-quar­ters for “intel­li­gence.” On the federal side, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, which already monit­ors social media domest­ic­ally, recently floated a vague and illconceived proposal to request “social media iden­ti­fi­ers” from twenty million trav­el­ers per year.

One might ask: who cares? Why does it matter if police detect­ives or intel­li­gence agents look at what you do on social media, when any other member of the public could do the same thing?

First, what law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence agen­cies can do with social media monit­or­ing soft­ware often bears little resemb­lance to what members of the public can do on social media plat­forms. To be sure, officers may follow indi­vidual suspects online—but they can also use power­ful propri­et­ary soft­ware that purports to lever­age “big data” to predict threats before they happen. Whether or not these services work (and do so non-discrim­in­at­or­ily) is a major ques­tion—either way, it is far differ­ent from the one-on-one eaves­drop­ping that char­ac­ter­izes most public use of social media.

In addi­tion, most people shar­ing inform­a­tion with their friends don’t fathom that their data is being shared with law enforce­ment as well. In a Pew Research Center poll, over 90 percent of Amer­ican adults surveyed said that it was import­ant to be able to control who saw inform­a­tion about them—that is, privacy should not require total secrecy.

As any 15 year old knows, social media is also highly context-depend­ent. A journ­al­ist on the national secur­ity beat may follow a suspec­ted terror­ist for her report­ing—but how will an auto­mated soft­ware program, or an intel­li­gence agency, know that the journ­al­ist does­n’t subscribe to the terror­ist’s message? The situ­ation is even more fraught for adoles­cents in areas with gangs, who might need to “like” a picture to keep them­selves out of trouble with neigh­bor­hood gang members but simul­tan­eously get into trouble with law enforce­ment; one teen spent nine­teen months in Rikers Island for appear­ing in pictures with “crew” members and liking their Face­book posts.

In light of these devel­op­ments, citizens must demand that elec­ted lead­ers and police depart­ments be trans­par­ent about the social media monit­or­ing services they use, the taxpayer money spent on them, and what they do with the data they produce. They should also demand that both the tools and their use be regu­larly eval­u­ated to ensure that they are not being used discrim­in­at­or­ily or to target polit­ical dissid­ents. This sunshine is crit­ical to ensur­ing that their use is in line with community and consti­tu­tional values. 

(Photo: Think­stock)