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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