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Brennan Center Files Public Records Requests for Information on Social Media Monitoring

The Brennan Center for Justice filed public records requests in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, DC seeking information about their police departments’ use of social media monitoring.

Last Updated: March 1, 2022
Published: February 3, 2020

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. On December 15, 2020, the Brennan Center filed a similar request to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in conjunction with Data for Black Lives. 

“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.

Baltimore

Overview:  On October 20, 2020, the Baltimore Police Department issued an incomplete response to the Brennan Center’s request, providing records responsive to only four of the seventeen categories of documents requested. On December 7, 2020 we submitted a request to the Baltimore Public Information Act Ombudsman’s office for mediation. Through mediation, the Brennan Center was able to obtain a response (available here) showing that the Baltimore Police Department has discontinued its use of social media monitoring software.

Los Angeles

  • Public records request letter
  • Resource page compiling and describing the documents that the Brennan Center obtained from the LAPD
  • Blog post on how the LAPD uses third-party social media monitoring tools
  • Blog post on the revelations from Voyager Labs’ pitches to the LAPD
  • Blog post on the LAPD’s use of ABTShield to collect millions of Tweets
  • Resource on the data from the LAPD’s trial with ABTShield
  • Guardian article on the impact of the LAPD’s collection and monitoring of social media
  • Guardian article on the LAPD’s use of Voyager Labs’ services to surveil online activity
  • Guardian article on how Voyager Labs’ tools work
  • Guardian article on how the LAPD used ABTShield to track social media activity surrounding protests

Overview: The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provided a partial response to the Brennan Center’s California Public Records Act Request on February 24, 2020. On March 12, 2020, LAPD produced one further document and closed the request. The LAPD’s limited production was demonstrably deficient, omitting documents the Center had reason to believe exist and revealing that LAPD failed to conduct an adequate search for records as required by law. On November 17, 2020, the Brennan Center, through its pro bono counsel Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, challenging the LAPD’s failure to disclose responsive documents. In response, LAPD produced supplemental documents in March and April 2021. On September 8, 2021, the Brennan Center published a blog post about LAPD’s use of social media monitoring tools and a resource page compiling the documents produced by LAPD, and The Guardian published an article about the documents and the impact of the LAPD’s collection and monitoring of social media. On November 17, 2021, the Brennan Center published a blog post about the services marketed to the LAPD by a social media monitoring company, Voyager Labs, and updated the resource page with documents produced by the LAPD. The Guardian published two articles about the documents the Brennan Center obtained about Voyager Labs and the capabilities the company claims its tools have. On December 15, 2021, the Brennan Center published internal documents and a blog post about the LAPD’s trial with ABTShield, a social media monitoring tool developed by Polish company EDGE NPD. The Brennan Center also published the data that the LAPD received as part of its trial with ABTShield. The Guard­ian published an article about the docu­ments the Bren­nan Center obtained about ABTShield.

Boston

Overview: The Boston Police Depart­ment has failed to produce any docu­ments in response to the Bren­nan Center’s Public Records Law Request. The Bren­nan Center contac­ted the Director of Public Records for the City of Boston in Septem­ber 2020 to discuss the Depart­ment’s nonrespons­ive­ness. When that approach failed to elicit any produc­tion, we filed an appeal with the Massachu­setts Super­visor of Records on Decem­ber 22, 2020 and received a favor­able decision. We are currently negotiating with the Boston Police Department and the City of Boston to ensure their production of responsive documents is complete.

New York City

Overview: On July 13, 2021, the NYPD issued a partial response to the Bren­nan Center’s public records request. The Bren­nan Center anti­cip­ates addi­tional docu­ments. We are currently negotiating with the NYPD to ensure their production of responsive documents is complete

Washington, DC

Overview: The Bren­nan Center submit­ted a similar public records request to the Wash­ing­ton, DC Metro­pol­itan Police Depart­ment (MPD) in conjunc­tion with Data for Black Lives on Decem­ber 15, 2020. The MPD failed to produce responsive documents for over nine months, before producing a small number of documents and closing the request. The Brennan Center and Data for Black Lives filed an administrative appeal with the Mayor’s office, challenging the inadequate production.  The MPD failed to respond to the deadlines set by the Mayor’s office, and the Mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an update. The Brennan Center and Data for Black Lives accordingly filed suit with the help of pro bono counsel Ballard Spahr LLP and the Brennan Center published a blog post about our lawsuit.  With our lawsuit, we’re asking the Court to order MPD to conduct an adequate search for and provide responsive documents in accordance with the District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act.

Updated March 1, 2022