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Analysis

We’re Suing DC Police for Records on Social Media Surveillance

The public records request lawsuit is key to protecting people’s privacy and First Amendment rights and guarding against discrimination and abuse.

cops
themefire/danjazzia/crossroadscreative/Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia

In an effort to increase trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity for how police monitor people on social media, today the Bren­nan Center and Data for Black Lives sued the Wash­ing­ton, DC, Metro­pol­itan Police Depart­ment to enforce a public records request seek­ing inform­a­tion about the MPD’s use of social media.

The request is one of a series that we filed in 2020 seek­ing answers from police depart­ments in five major cities about how their officers use social media for surveil­lance, public safety, and other activ­it­ies.

Across the coun­try, police use social media plat­forms like Face­book, Twit­ter, and Instagram to gather inform­a­tion about people, groups, or activ­it­ies. Police depart­ments might manu­ally search social media posts or create accounts to connect with indi­vidu­als or groups without identi­fy­ing them­selves as law enforce­ment, even though that prac­tice viol­ates the terms of service of at least one major social media plat­form, Face­book, as the company (now named Meta) recently reit­er­ated in a public letter to the Los Angeles Police Depart­ment.

Police depart­ments also use third-party programs to identify and compile social media inform­a­tion based on keywords, geographic loca­tion, or other data to identify connec­tions between indi­vidu­als and to track people from social media to other sites they visit. Although several major social media compan­ies announced in 2016 that these tools viol­ated their rules, it appears at least some are still marketed to and used by law enforce­ment.

Moreover, social media monit­or­ing is a power­ful tool that can be easily abused, putting people’s privacy and free speech rights at risk — espe­cially in communit­ies of color. So in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Wash­ing­ton, we’ve deman­ded docu­ments related to police depart­ments’ policies, how they use social media in crim­inal and other contexts, their record-keep­ing and safe­guards against abuse, and more. This inform­a­tion is essen­tial for public over­sight and control of law enforce­ment.

The District of Columbia MPD produced only a hand­ful of docu­ments. And we received noth­ing further after we submit­ted an admin­is­trat­ive appeal to the Mayor’s Office two months ago. By contrast, we’ve received hundreds of pages from the New York City and Boston police depart­ments — though our efforts to obtain more respons­ive records are ongo­ing — and obtained a repres­ent­a­tion from the Baltimore Police Depart­ment that it no longer uses any third-party tools to monitor social media. By filing our lawsuit, we join other local journ­al­ists and activ­ists in push­ing the MPD to comply with its FOIA oblig­a­tions despite a history of avoid­ance.

In Los Angeles, docu­ments published by the Bren­nan Center revealed that the LAPD used a 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. Although Geofee­dia ceased oper­a­tions several years ago, in 2021, the LAPD added a new social media surveil­lance tool called Media Sonar, which can build detailed profiles on indi­vidu­als and identify links between them.

The docu­ments also show that the LAPD instructs its officers to broadly collect social media account inform­a­tion from people they encounter in person using field inter­view cards. Addi­tional docu­ments we released show LAPD tried other tools — Voyager Analyt­ics and ABTShield — capable of collect­ing vast amounts of personal data.

In Boston, a public records request from the ACLU of Massachu­setts revealed that the police used Geofee­dia soft­ware to monitor Muslim communit­ies across several social media plat­forms, track­ing common­place Arabic words like “ummah” — which means community — as well as “#Muslim­LivesMat­ter.” The Boston Police Depart­ment also monitored protest­ers against police viol­ence, look­ing for the phrases “black lives matter,” “Ferguson,” and “protest.”

In Baltimore, the police used Geofee­dia to monitor the social media posts and loca­tions of protest­ers in the wake of Fred­die Gray’s death in 2015. And in Wash­ing­ton, the police depart­ment contrac­ted with Dataminr, yet another surveil­lance soft­ware company.

Social media surveil­lance has also resul­ted in concrete harms to minor­ity communit­ies. In one troub­ling case, the New York City Police Depart­ment arres­ted Jelani Henry for attemp­ted murder based largely on his social media asso­ci­ations and pictures with members of a local “crew.” Jelani was only connec­ted to the group through his prox­im­ity — both online and offline — to his brother and other neigh­bor­hood friends who were members. He spent two years in jail, includ­ing nine months in solit­ary confine­ment, before his case was ulti­mately dropped. In prior years, the NYPD notori­ously swept through Harlem and the Bronx conduct­ing mass arrests of Black and Latino men, many of whom faced crim­inal conspir­acy charges based heav­ily on posts and “likes” on social media.

These stor­ies raise signi­fic­ant concerns about the oppor­tun­it­ies for misuse and abuse of social media by law enforce­ment. Reports have only contin­ued while our requests have been pending. In New York, for example, the NYPD reportedly used social media and facial recog­ni­tion to track down a protester accused of yelling in the ear of a police officer two months earlier. In Los Angeles, the FBI aler­ted police to a post advoc­at­ing for destruc­tion of “blue lives matter” flags.

Similar accounts from cities across the coun­try under­score the import­ance of hold­ing police depart­ments account­able for how they use social media and emphas­ize the poten­tial for social media monit­or­ing to chill First Amend­ment activ­it­ies.

That’s why we’ve long called for trans­par­ency into how police use social media, clear and enforce­able limit­a­tions on when it can be used, and report­ing on the extent and effect­ive­ness of monit­or­ing.

And some police depart­ments have made help­ful strides. For example, the Austin (TX) Police Depart­ment limits social media monit­or­ing to a small number of situ­ations, requires super­visor approval for any use of covert accounts, and requires that inform­a­tion gathered for noncrim­inal “situ­ational aware­ness” should be deleted within 14 days if there is no related crim­inal activ­ity. While we might advoc­ate for even greater restraints, it is far ahead of the many other police depart­ments whose policies simply endorse the use of social media while impos­ing few to no limit­a­tions or over­sight.

In the mean­time, we must continue to advoc­ate for trans­par­ency and reform, even if it means taking police depart­ments to court. With the filing of this FOIA lawsuit, we’re signal­ing to police depart­ments that we won’t rest until their social media monit­or­ing prac­tices are brought to light.