On January 30, 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice filed public records requests in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Baltimore seeking information about their police departments’ use of social media monitoring.
“Social media monitoring” refers to the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to gather information about people, groups, or activities. Police departments may use third-party programs to identify and compile social media information based on keywords, geographic location, or other data. They may also conduct manual searches of social media posts or utilize undercover accounts to connect with individuals or groups through aliases.
Social media monitoring efforts are often implemented in ways that have a disparate impact on youth, marginalized communities, and activists. For example, in New York City, the NYPD arrested Jelani Henry on attempted murder charges based largely on his social media associations and pictures with members of a local “crew.” Jelani was only connected to the group due to his proximity — both online and in real life — to his brother, who was a member of the crew, and other neighborhood friends. He spent two years incarcerated on Rikers Island, due in large part to this “social media evidence,” before his case was ultimately dropped and he was released. In Boston, a public records request from the ACLU of Massachusetts revealed that the police had contracted with a software company, Geofeedia, to monitor Muslim communities across several social media platforms – tracking commonplace Arabic words like “ummah,” which means community. In Los Angeles, officers monitored the Twitter posts of outspoken critics of the police, and in Baltimore, the police used Geofeedia to monitor the social media posts and locations of protestors in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.
The public lacks adequate information about the current capabilities and limitations of police social media monitoring operations. The Brennan Center seeks information regarding the policies governing police use of social media monitoring, data collection, data retention, data sharing, record-keeping, third party applications, audits, training, and legal challenges.
See the Brennan Center’s public records requests below.