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How to Reform Police Monitoring of Social Media

Reforms should place guardrails on law enforcement access to social media and codify legal recourse for impact.

Civil rights protest­ers have long been the target of state surveil­lance. Recent efforts to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter protests and demon­stra­tions against family separ­a­tion, for instance, echo the FBI’s counter-intel­li­gence program used to spy on civil rights lead­ers from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Huey Newton

Yet today’s surveil­lance analysts have a new source of inform­a­tion: social media. Consider the recent protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As demon­stra­tions spread across the coun­try, the FBI and local police monitored social media and made arrests based on what people have posted online. In one instance, police in Wichita, Kansas even arres­ted a teen­ager on suspi­cion of incite­ment to riot­ing based on a threat­en­ing Snapchat screen­shot he shared. The teen’s post added a note caution­ing read­ers to “stay tf away from” his homet­own—rhet­oric inten­ded to denounce the call to viol­ence, not to foment it.

Unfor­tu­nately, the surveil­lance of social media is a grow­ing trend. In recent years, social media posts have landed indi­vidu­als of color in over­broad and unre­li­able gang data­bases, and even been used to justify keep­ing them imprisoned. One New York teen spent more than a year on Rikers Island, based in large part on the district attor­ney’s incor­rect assess­ment that he was a member of a crim­inal gang. The D.A. relied on Face­book photos of the teen with members of a local crew—a group of kids loosely affil­i­ated by block or hous­ing devel­op­ment—and several posts from crew members that he had “liked.” In real­ity, the teen was simply connec­ted to crew members because they were his neigh­bors and family members. The extent to which communit­ies of color are viewed with suspi­cion can create a self-fulfilling proph­ecy where basic social media etiquette is mistaken for member­ship in a crim­inal enter­prise. Social media is highly contex­tual and prone to misin­ter­pret­a­tion, magni­fy­ing the risk that one person’s innoc­u­ous post will be taken as some­thing more sinis­ter.

From protests to public hous­ing, social media monit­or­ing raises civil liber­ties and civil rights concerns that are currently going unad­dressed. Estab­lish­ing a frame­work that balances public safety and the right to privacy, free expres­sion, and equal protec­tion under the law requires updates to our exist­ing regu­lat­ory controls.

How do police monitor social media?

To begin with, how do the police watch social media? Most commonly, an officer views publicly avail­able posts by search­ing for an indi­vidual, group, hashtag, or another search vector. Depend­ing on the plat­form and the search, it may yield all of the content respons­ive to the query or only a portion. When seek­ing access to more than is publicly avail­able, police may use an inform­ant (such as a friend of the target) or create an under­cover account by posing as a fellow activ­ist or allur­ing stranger. This allows officers to commu­nic­ate directly with the target and see content posted by both the target and their contacts that might other­wise be inac­cess­ible to the public.

Police have also used soft­ware to monitor people, groups, asso­ci­ations, or loca­tions in a more auto­mated manner. This soft­ware included tools that mapped clusters of activ­ity and a plat­form for link­ing under­cover accounts. This tactic is less common now after the major plat­forms prohib­ited app developers from receiv­ing auto­mated access to public content for surveil­lance.

Dataminr, the prom­in­ent social media analyt­ics firm, appears to have found a partial work­around to this prohib­i­tion by provid­ing police with “public sector alerts.” Datamin­r’s auto­mated systems analyze public data feeds and deliver auto­mated alerts to law enforce­ment clients, includ­ing the FBI, about shoot­ings and natural disasters. It is unclear whether law enforce­ment can custom­ize the service to go beyond the types of alerts included in Datamin­r’s market­ing mater­ial.

Law enforce­ment may also request social media data as part of a crim­inal invest­ig­a­tion. By deploy­ing subpoenas and warrants, law enforce­ment can collect an array of data directly from social media compan­ies. For example, a template warrant drawn up by the Depart­ment of Justice to serve on Face­book contem­plates collect­ing an array of data, includ­ing contact inform­a­tion, photos, status updates, private messages, friends lists, group affil­i­ations, “friend” requests, future and past event post­ings, privacy settings, and more.

Social media monit­or­ing is pervas­ive. Accord­ing to a 2017 survey by the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Chiefs of Police, 70% of respond­ing police depart­ments use social media for intel­li­gence gath­er­ing and to monitor public senti­ment. Simil­arly, Face­book’s latest trans­par­ency report states that the company received over 50,000 govern­ment requests for data between July and Decem­ber 2019.

What does the law say?  

Despite wide­spread use of social media by police, there are few laws that specific­ally constrain law enforce­ment’s abil­ity to engage in social media monit­or­ing. In the absence of legis­la­tion, the strongest controls over this surveil­lance tactic are often police depart­ments’ indi­vidual social media policies and plat­form restric­tions, such as Face­book’s real name policy and Twit­ter’s prohib­i­tion against using its API for surveil­lance. While the consti­tu­tional land­scape is unsettled, consti­tu­tional protec­tions for privacy, free­dom of speech and asso­ci­ation, and equal protec­tion may provide mech­an­isms for indi­vidu­als to chal­lenge the govern­ment’s collec­tion and use of their social media data.

Fourth Amend­ment protec­tions

The Fourth Amend­ment guar­an­tees the right of the people to be free from unreas­on­able searches and seizures; the inquiry for whether a search was unreas­on­able, outside of the core protec­tions of the Fourth Amend­ment for “persons, houses, papers, and effects,”  gener­ally comes down to whether a person has a “reas­on­able expect­a­tion of privacy” and whether soci­ety recog­nizes that expect­a­tion as reas­on­able. While courts have begun to recog­nize that privacy does­n’t require abso­lute secrecy, they have never­the­less typic­ally held that indi­vidu­als do not have a recog­nized expect­a­tion of privacy in data publicly shared online. As one appeals court put it, “If you post a tweet, just like you scream it out the window, there is no reas­on­able expect­a­tion of privacy.”

When police want access to inform­a­tion that is not read­ily avail­able to the public, however, the Supreme Court gener­ally requires law enforce­ment to meet a higher stand­ard. The Court has held, for instance, that when law enforce­ment uses digital tools to view inform­a­tion that would other­wise require a warrant to obtain, the use of that tool requires a warrant as well. Never­the­less, courts have gener­ally allowed police to engage in under­cover oper­a­tions (both online and in the real world) without obtain­ing a warrant—­though indi­vidual law enforce­ment agen­cies may put addi­tional restric­tions in place.

This permissive approach largely grows out of a separ­ate legal prin­ciple called the “third-party doctrine.” Under this doctrine, when people share inform­a­tion with a third party, whether another person or a busi­ness, they should expect that the data could be disclosed to the govern­ment.

Courts have exten­ded this reas­on­ing to social media. In United States v. Mere­gildo (2012), for instance, a New York district court found that while a person’s privacy settings might have signaled an intent to main­tain secrecy, any expect­a­tion of privacy was “extin­guished” when they shared content with Face­book friends because those indi­vidu­als were free to use that inform­a­tion however they saw fit—in­clud­ing by shar­ing it with law enforce­ment.

But the bound­ar­ies of the third-party doctrine are becom­ing murkier, and the Supreme Court is increas­ingly signal­ing a need to recon­sider the doctrine in light of tech­no­lo­gical advances. Most recently, in the 2018 case Carpenter v. United States, the court ruled that despite the third-party doctrine, the police had to obtain a warrant before it could access histor­ical loca­tion inform­a­tion held by cell phone providers. And in the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in United States v. Jones, which held that the govern­ment had to get a warrant to install a GPS device that enabled constant loca­tion track­ing, Justice Sonia Soto­mayor observed in her concur­rence that secrecy might need to stop being treated as a “prerequis­ite for privacy” in order to account for the volumes of sens­it­ive data shared with third parties on a daily basis. 

The applic­a­tion of the Fourth Amend­ment has been rooted in prac­tical limit­a­tions, but the force multi­plier effect of social media surveil­lance calls those limit­a­tions into ques­tion. If police want to phys­ic­ally trail a car, there are limits to the number of vehicles that can be followed. Having to make determ­in­a­tions about how best to alloc­ate an officer’s valu­able time provides some rough limits, even if those resource decisions are not always made judi­ciously. By contrast, a single officer can monitor the social media accounts of dozens of people all at once, without having to leave her work­sta­tion. Under­cover social media accounts offer greatly expan­ded power as well. An officer who would have to take care to create and main­tain a single under­cover persona in real life could have twenty differ­ent perso­nas online. And soph­ist­ic­ated soft­ware may be able to assist police in monit­or­ing thou­sands of accounts at the push of a button.

In 1983, the Supreme Court predicted that this kind of wide-scale surveil­lance could trig­ger a differ­ent legal analysis. “If such drag­net-type law enforce­ment prac­tices…should even­tu­ally occur,” it may be time “to determ­ine whether differ­ent consti­tu­tional prin­ciples may be applic­able,” Justice William Rehnquist wrote in United States v. Knotts, in which the court decided that track­ing a suspect using a surrepti­tiously planted beeper device did not consti­tute a Fourth Amend­ment search.

Finally, law enforce­ment can also seek account inform­a­tion directly from social media compan­ies. Under the Stored Commu­nic­a­tions Act (SCA), law enforce­ment can serve a warrant or subpoena on a social media company to get access to inform­a­tion about a person’s social media profile. The SCA also permits service providers to volun­tar­ily share user data without any legal process if delays in provid­ing the inform­a­tion may lead to death or seri­ous injury.

While numer­ous defend­ants have chal­lenged the consti­tu­tional valid­ity of warrants to search their social media data, courts have gener­ally upheld the warrants. For example, courts have upheld warrants look­ing for IP logs to estab­lish a suspect’s loca­tion, for evid­ence of commu­nic­a­tions between suspects, and to estab­lish a connec­tion between co-conspir­at­ors.

First and Four­teenth Amend­ment protec­tions

The First and Four­teenth Amend­ments offer protec­tions where surveil­lance is based on polit­ical or reli­gious beliefs, asso­ci­ations, racial and ethnic iden­tit­ies, and other protec­ted categor­ies or activ­it­ies. Surveil­lance can have a chilling effect on First Amend­ment freedoms, and surveil­lance that dispro­por­tion­ately targets a protec­ted class can give rise to equal protec­tion harms under the Four­teenth Amend­ment.

Social media monit­or­ing can have seri­ous chilling effects on protec­ted speech and asso­ci­ation. When police target indi­vidu­als for surveil­lance because of their polit­ical view­points, people may choose to censor their online activ­ity and asso­ci­ations to reduce the risk of govern­mental monit­or­ing. Like­wise, law enforce­ment may use social media to compile dossiers on people on the basis of First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­it­ies and may share them among local, state, and federal agen­cies—this can increase the risk that protest­ers later face retali­at­ory target­ing in the form of deport­a­tion proceed­ings or unre­lated crim­inal prosec­u­tions.

The case law on whether these impacts give rise to concrete First Amend­ment claims contin­ues to evolve. In Laird v. Tatum (1972), the Supreme Court adop­ted a restrict­ive approach to the First Amend­ment, ruling that plaintiffs in the case did not have stand­ing to chal­lenge an Army intel­li­gence program stood up in response to 1960s civil rights protests. That program collec­ted inform­a­tion from news­pa­pers and police depart­ments and sent Army intel­li­gence agents to attend public meet­ings. But, the Court ruled, the mere exist­ence of a surveil­lance program that may have chilled speech did not cause suffi­cient harm to give the plaintiffs the right to sue under the First Amend­ment.

Where the target­ing of First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­ity leads to a concrete harm, affected indi­vidu­als may have stand­ing to raise a claim. For example, in Baird v. State Bar of Arizona, a lawyer was preven­ted from join­ing the state bar because she refused to answer if she had ever been a member of the Commun­ist Party. There, the Supreme Court ruled that the govern­ment “may not inquire about a man’s views or asso­ci­ations solely for the purpose of with­hold­ing a right or bene­fit because of what he believes.” Apply­ing this ruling to the digital era, if a person’s social media is surveilled on the basis of her polit­ical beliefs or asso­ci­ations, and she is later denied a civil bene­fit or prosec­uted for an unre­lated crime in retali­ation for the beliefs or asso­ci­ations revealed, she should have stand­ing to bring a First Amend­ment claim. In a time when social media monit­or­ing allows the govern­ment to discover a person’s beliefs and asso­ci­ations easily and covertly, there is a partic­u­lar need to ensure that this inform­a­tion is not misused to target disfavored indi­vidu­als for adverse govern­ment action. Unchecked, discrim­in­at­ory surveil­lance can have chilling effects on unpop­u­lar but lawful asso­ci­ations.

Fortu­nately, in Hassan v. City of New York (2015), the Third Circuit ruled that where discrim­in­at­ory govern­ment monit­or­ing dissuades indi­vidu­als from exer­cising their consti­tu­tional rights, they may have stand­ing to chal­lenge the surveil­lance. The Hassan court eval­u­ated the NYPD’s post-9/11 surveil­lance of Muslim communit­ies in New York and New Jersey. This surveil­lance program targeted mosques, student groups, busi­nesses, cafes, and more, lead­ing many indi­vidu­als to limit or with­draw from being active parti­cipants in their community. The Third Circuit ruled that where surveil­lance is racially or reli­giously biased, or under­taken in retali­ation for exer­cising First Amend­ment rights, impacted indi­vidu­als have stand­ing to chal­lenge the prac­tice in court—even if the discrim­in­a­tion is not “motiv­ated by ill will, enmity, or hostil­ity.”

Extend­ing Hassan to social media monit­or­ing, surveil­lance that targets protec­ted speech or dispro­por­tion­ately targets a racial or reli­gious group, and leads to a concrete harm, can give rise to a viable First or Four­teenth Amend­ment chal­lenge, even if the surveil­lance was not anim­ated by “overt hostil­ity or preju­dice.” By inten­tion­ally target­ing Black Lives Matter activ­ists, police may be enga­ging in this kind of discrim­in­at­ory surveil­lance. The same analysis could also apply to the surveil­lance of teens and pre-teens of color suspec­ted of gang activ­ity.

These discrim­in­at­ory surveil­lance programs, which target their online lives for dispar­ate treat­ment based on their ethni­city, may stamp them with a badge of inferi­or­ity that viol­ates their rights to equal protec­tion under the law. In Boston, a defense attor­ney recently won a discov­ery order requir­ing the police depart­ment to produce records related to its surveil­lance on Snapchat, which will offer an oppor­tun­ity to determ­ine whether the program dispro­por­tion­ately targets Black and Latino men.

Room for reform

The avail­ab­il­ity of social media has dramat­ic­ally expan­ded the scope of law enforce­ment surveil­lance. At the same time, few depart­ments have publicly avail­able policies govern­ing their use of social media for intel­li­gence, data collec­tion, and crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions. There are a number of prac­tical steps that can be taken to begin to address this gap.

  1.  Every juris­dic­tion should be required to hold public hear­ings and obtain local govern­ment approval before police engage in social media monit­or­ing. Where depart­ments are already engaged in this prac­tice, they should pause the bulk of these oper­a­tions pending public hear­ings and eval­u­ate whether exist­ing surveil­lance programs dispro­por­tion­ately target consti­tu­tion­ally protec­ted groups or asso­ci­ations.
  2. Every law enforce­ment agency that uses social media for data gath­er­ing purposes should have a publicly avail­able policy that describes their use of social media. These policies should detail the restric­tions and proced­ures for social media monit­or­ing and should specify the stand­ards govern­ing collec­tion, use, reten­tion, and shar­ing of personal inform­a­tion. Social media policies should contain clear prohib­i­tions against surveil­lance based on race, reli­gion, gender, sexual orient­a­tion, immig­ra­tion status, or a person’s exer­cise of First Amend­ment freedoms. The policy should also specify the legal processes that must be followed before law enforce­ment can seek social media data from compan­ies. The restric­tions imposed by a depart­ment’s social media policy should be legally enforce­able, such as by state attor­neys general or the Depart­ment of Justice.
  3. Not every invest­ig­a­tion warrants the use of invas­ive covert accounts. There should be strict controls on the use of this tech­nique, includ­ing ongo­ing monit­or­ing, super­vis­ory approval and over­sight, and time limit­a­tions. Law enforce­ment should be banned from imper­son­at­ing an actual person without that person’s permis­sion. Where law enforce­ment wants to use a covert account, they should be required to docu­ment that no less-invas­ive means are avail­able and to submit the docu­ment­a­tion to an external body for over­sight and approval. Judi­cial over­sight of online under­cover activ­ity would offer the most robust protec­tion. 
  4. Police are preven­ted from inter­view­ing minors without noti­fy­ing their parent or guard­ian. This protec­tion should be exten­ded to the online space with a flat prohib­i­tion against police connect­ing with minors via social media.
  5. Social media monit­or­ing should be subject to ongo­ing report­ing and audit require­ments. For example, police should have to regu­larly disclose inform­a­tion such as the number of social media invest­ig­a­tions that are open and closed and those that are exten­ded past their original clos­ure date. The reports should also indic­ate where invest­ig­a­tions may impact protec­ted classes of people. Each police depart­ment’s social media monit­or­ing prac­tices should be audited by an inde­pend­ent entity on an ongo­ing basis to ensure compli­ance with consti­tu­tional protec­tions and safe­guards.

These recom­mend­a­tions are inten­ded as start­ing points for enact­ing needed reforms. They repres­ent a regu­lat­ory floor, and juris­dic­tions should be empowered to enact stronger prohib­i­tions against certain types of monit­or­ing. This may prove neces­sary in juris­dic­tions where police depart­ments exhibit repeated and consist­ent prac­tices that viol­ate consti­tu­tional rights and freedoms. Estab­lish­ing the right regu­lat­ory controls will require input and action from a number of stake­hold­ers, from communit­ies to civil soci­ety to police depart­ments and local govern­ment to Congress and the Depart­ment of Justice. But this import­ant regu­lat­ory action is over­due and should not be put off any longer.

This piece was origin­ally published by the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion.