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LAPD Documents Reveal Use of Social Media Monitoring Tools

Internal records show that officers are tracking people and their connections with little guidance or oversight to protect privacy and First Amendment rights.

September 8, 2021

The Los Angeles Police Depart­ment author­izes its officers to engage in extens­ive surveil­lance of social media without internal monit­or­ing of the nature or effect­ive­ness of the searches, accord­ing to the results of a public records request filed by the Bren­nan Center.

And begin­ning this year, the depart­ment is adding a new social media surveil­lance tool: Media Sonar, which can build detailed profiles on indi­vidu­als and identify links between them. This acquis­i­tion increases oppor­tun­it­ies for abuse by expand­ing officers’ abil­ity to conduct wide-ranging social media surveil­lance.

This has seri­ous implic­a­tions for people’s privacy and First Amend­ment rights, espe­cially for communit­ies of color and activ­ists. Social media surveil­lance can facil­it­ate surveil­lance of protest activ­ity and police pres­ence at protests, which can chill both online and offline speech. Further, the highly contex­tual nature of social media also makes it ripe for misin­ter­pret­a­tion.

The docu­ments we’re releas­ing were obtained as part of our effort to increase trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity for how police monitor people on social media. To that end, we filed public records act requests with the police in Los Angeles and other major cities.

Among the LAPD docu­ments, the depart­ment’s 2015 Social Media User Guide shows that the depart­ment encour­ages social media monit­or­ing but has issued little guid­ance and imposed minimal over­sight over officers’ surveil­lance on social media plat­forms. The depart­ment allows officers to create a “Ficti­tious Online Persona” and use the perso­nas for numer­ous purposes:

Online Investigative Activity
Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment

Few limit­a­tions offset this broad author­ity: officers need not docu­ment the searches they conduct, their purpose, or the justi­fic­a­tion. They are not required to seek super­vis­ory approval, and the guide offers no stand­ards for the types of cases that warrant social media surveil­lance. While officers are instruc­ted not to conduct social media surveil­lance for personal, illi­cit, or illegal purposes, they seem other­wise to have complete discre­tion over whom to surveil, how broadly to track their online activ­ity, and how long to monitor them.

In the same policy, the depart­ment encour­ages social media “listen­ing,” which is broadly defined:

Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment

The policy also imposes no limits upon this “continu­ous” monit­or­ing and does not require over­sight to determ­ine whether it is being deployed inap­pro­pri­ately or discrim­in­at­or­ily. 

Despite endow­ing its officers with broad author­ity to surveil social media, the LAPD has done little to ensure these powers aren’t abused. Accord­ing to a letter respond­ing to our records request, it does “not track what (if anything) [its] employ­ees monitor[]” on social media sites and “has not conduc­ted any audits regard­ing the use of social media.”

This dispar­ity between what officers can do and how closely they are over­seen is likely to grow with the rollout of Media Sonar, which markets itself as a power­ful surveil­lance tool:

Media Sonar
Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment

Docu­ments also show that the LAPD instructs its officers to broadly collect social media account inform­a­tion from those they encounter in person using field inter­view (FI) cards:

Police memo
Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment
Field interview card
Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment

Appar­ently, noth­ing bars officers from filling out FI cards for each inter­ac­tion they engage in on patrol. Notably, our review of inform­a­tion about FI cards in 40 other cities did not reveal any other police depart­ments that use the cards to collect social media data, though details are sparse.

These cards facil­it­ate large-scale monit­or­ing of both the indi­vidu­als on whom they are collec­ted and their friends, family, and asso­ci­ates — even people suspec­ted of no crime at all. Inform­a­tion from the cards is fed into Palantir, a system through which the LAPD aggreg­ates data from a wide array of sources to increase its surveil­lance and analyt­ical capab­il­it­ies.

Palantir facil­it­ates officers’ abil­ity to search through data the depart­ment collects or purchases. For example, when an officer iden­ti­fies a “person of interest” in a crim­inal invest­ig­a­tion, Palantir can be used to obtain a map of their move­ments and personal rela­tion­ships, check­ing DMV records, license plate reader data, employ­ment data, arrest records, field inter­view card data, and other sources. When an officer seeks inform­a­tion about a partic­u­lar loca­tion, the system can use a similar process to identify those who are routinely in the area by virtue of their work, resid­ence, or docu­mented encoun­ters with police.

Crit­ics have poin­ted out that Palantir allows users to map and monitor vast networks of indi­vidu­als, which raises concerns that the LAPD will use it to continue its prac­tice of identi­fy­ing people as gang members based on false or tenu­ous evid­ence. These harms are likely to be magni­fied by Palantir’s focus on mapping indi­vidu­als’ personal networks. One indi­vidual iden­ti­fied as a gang member, even inac­cur­ately, becomes a gang “connec­tion” for the people they know online and off, creat­ing widen­ing circles of ostens­ible gang members based on faulty and increas­ingly far-removed evid­ence. The plat­form’s emphasis on networks also encour­ages ever-broader surveil­lance drag­nets under the theory that anyone’s data could be used to solve a future crime.

These prac­tices — along with the LAPD’s plans to expand its monit­or­ing capab­il­it­ies using Media Sonar — would be troub­ling in any police depart­ment. The LAPD is not just any police depart­ment, however. It has a history of monit­or­ing minor­ity and activ­ist communit­ies. In 2016, as new docu­ments disclosed to the Bren­nan Center reveal, the depart­ment used Dataminr to monitor protests:

Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment, Dataminr Summary of May 2016 Protest Monit­or­ing

Addi­tional new docu­ments reveal the LAPD used another third-party vendor, Geofee­dia, to search social media for inform­a­tion about Black Lives Matter activ­ists and protests against police viol­ence, using numer­ous hasht­ags to identify their posts: 

Source: Los Angeles Police Depart­ment

(Face­book and Twit­ter cut off Geofee­di­a’s access to their data once it was revealed how police were using it.) By contrast, the Depart­ment monitored a single polit­ical hashtag (#fuck­don­aldtrump) and a single gang-related hashtag (#100days100nights).

The broad use of social media and the lack of over­sight accom­pa­ny­ing it, as these new docu­ments put into high relief, is a matter of signi­fic­ant concern. Law enforce­ment should not have a free pass to broadly trawl the inter­net without account­ab­il­ity or over­sight. Communit­ies in Los Angeles and else­where must demand trans­par­ency in and limits around social media monit­or­ing prac­tices.