Skip Navigation

Mapping Reveals Rising Use of Social Media Monitoring Tools by Cities Nationwide

Alongside commercial ventures, local governments and police are using social media monitoring products to probe posts for information on protests, potential threats, breaking news, and more.

  • Rachel Cohn
  • Angie Liao
November 16, 2016

Along­side commer­cial ventures, local govern­ments and police are using social media monit­or­ing products to probe posts on sites such as Face­book, Twit­ter, Instagram, Youtube, Google+, and Vine for inform­a­tion on protests, poten­tial threats, break­ing news, and more.

Unlike the simple search of a hashtag or keyword that anyone with access to the inter­net can perform, social media monit­or­ing products have the capab­il­ity to read, inter­pret, and categor­ize millions of posts in mere minutes, allow­ing users of the soft­ware to stay on top of discus­sions on social media in real-time as well as search through histor­ical archives of social media posts. Some social media monit­or­ing products claim that they can even inter­pret the nuances of sarcasm in posts, eval­u­ate the cred­ib­il­ity and influ­ence of a message, chart out the rela­tion­ships between vari­ous social media users, recog­nize and create alerts based on images (includ­ing emojis), and pinpoint the move­ments of indi­vidu­als. In short, social media monit­or­ing tech­no­logy provides the capab­il­ity to constantly monitor and archive inform­a­tion on millions of people’s activ­it­ies.

Unsur­pris­ingly, law enforce­ment agen­cies are increas­ingly using these tools; accord­ing to a 2015 survey by the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Police Chiefs, 96.4% percent of law enforce­ment agen­cies surveyed used social media in some capa­city, includ­ing over half for listen­ing or monit­or­ing and three-quar­ters for intel­li­gence gath­er­ing purposes. News articles indic­ate that soft­ware is used to compile evid­ence for crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions, shorten emer­gency response times, alert police to poten­tial threats, detect trends in activ­ity, and analyze senti­ment levels in post­ings. 

But the tech­no­logy can also be used to monitor polit­ical and social justice move­ments, posing risks to First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­ity. For example, accord­ing to news reports, police depart­ments may have used products from Geofee­dia, Media Sonar, and Digit­alStakeout to monitor Black Lives Matter activ­ists. During the Fred­die Gray protests of 2015, Baltimore police used Geofee­di­a’s real-time monit­or­ing to run social media photos through facial recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy, in order to discover rioters with outstand­ing warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd of protest­ers. Invest­ig­a­tions have revealed that some compan­ies even marketed their services to law enforce­ment for monit­or­ing of protest­ors.

In some cases, public safety agen­cies have used soft­ware that pulls in a wealth of inform­a­tion, includ­ing social media data, to assign indi­vidu­als “threat levels.” Some compan­ies allow law enforce­ment to create “under­cover accounts,” or “targeted friend requests” that law enforce­ment believes the subject will accept – includ­ing “accounts depict­ing ‘attract­ive women’” or accounts purport­ing to be from an actual friend or acquaint­ance. Police have also made it clear that they know the iden­tity of protest­ors at times, such as when a police officer called activ­ist Ashley Yates by her twit­ter handle @brown­blaze at a New York protest.

While a few such anec­dotes have come to light, very little is known about how, when, and why social media monit­or­ing tech­no­logy is used by law enforce­ment. With the excep­tion of inform­a­tion obtained through free­dom of inform­a­tion law requests, there is almost no way for the public to determ­ine whether their local police depart­ment or sher­iff’s office possesses social media monit­or­ing soft­ware, much less obtain inform­a­tion on their policies regard­ing the use of such soft­ware.

In an effort to bring greater trans­par­ency and atten­tion to this issue, the Bren­nan Center has created a map that depicts the cities and counties across the United States that have spent at least $10,000* on social media monit­or­ing soft­ware, accord­ing to public reports, inform­a­tion from the govern­ment procure­ment data­base Smart­Pro­cure, and inform­a­tion from public records requests, partic­u­larly via the ACLU of North­ern Cali­for­nia and the invest­ig­at­ive news site Muck­Rock. The map focuses on purchases of eight social media monit­or­ing products for which data was avail­able: Geofee­dia, Media Sonar, Snaptrends (now reportedly closed), Dataminr, Digit­alStakeout, PATHAR, Melt­water, and Babel Street. The map also indic­ates years in which purchases were made.

Three caveats are in order.

  • First, the inform­a­tion we collec­ted from Smart­Pro­cure docu­ments only the purchases of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware; these purchases may not neces­sar­ily indic­ate use of the product.
  • Second, when we looked at Smart­Pro­cure, we found that most purchase orders for these products were made by cities or counties, rather than specific police depart­ments or sher­iff’s offices. It is possible that this is the result of the way local agen­cies conduct busi­ness. For example, in some regions it may be the city govern­ment or admin­is­trat­ive office that is tasked with managing budgets for all the differ­ent agen­cies that fall within a city. As a result, we cannot say with certainty whether a city’s purchase is being used by law enforce­ment. We can confirm that all of the products included in the map were either marketed to the “public sector” or marketed for the express purpose of managing “public safety”; however, most of the products can be used for addi­tional purposes that extend beyond conduct­ing invest­ig­a­tions or gath­er­ing threat intel­li­gence, such as gath­er­ing inform­a­tion for market­ing and brand­ing, monit­or­ing the secur­ity of corpor­ate assets or detect­ing threats to cyber-secur­ity.
  • Third, the map does not include federal agen­cies like the Federal Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tion, Drug Enforce­ment Agency, Cent­ral Intel­li­gence Agency, or the US Marshals Service. These agen­cies have spent signi­fic­ant amounts of money on social media monit­or­ing soft­ware accord­ing to several news reports, and have even inves­ted in the devel­op­ment of some of the products included on the map. The map also does not include purchases by fusion centers, major inform­a­tion-shar­ing hubs that connect the local, state, and federal govern­ment and the private sector. Further, the map does not include inform­a­tion on the purchase of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware by public schools or school districts, given that these insti­tu­tions are not specific­ally oriented toward law enforce­ment or public safety.

Ulti­mately, this map, with 151 cities, counties, and police depart­ments, provides a conser­vat­ive estim­ate of the total number of local juris­dic­tions that have purchased these products. Smart­Pro­cure only obtains inform­a­tion from groups that volun­tar­ily opt-in to its service or that have respon­ded to its purchase requests. As a result, there may be addi­tional muni­cip­al­it­ies that have purchased the soft­ware but did not report their spend­ing to Smart­Pro­cure and who have not been the subjects of report­ing or public records requests. Moreover, free­dom of inform­a­tion law requests and report­ing by the media capture what is likely only a small slice of the juris­dic­tions that are using such soft­ware

We plan to keep this map updated as more inform­a­tion becomes avail­able. If you have any inform­a­tion regard­ing a local govern­ment or law enforce­ment agency’s purchase and util­iz­a­tion of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware that is not indic­ated on the map, please contact denuyls@bren­ 

*Where avail­able, sales tax amounts were included.