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Map: Social Media Monitoring by Police Departments, Cities, and Counties

Social media monitoring technology provides the capability to constantly monitor and archive information on millions of people’s activities, and it can be used by law enforcement to probe posts for information on protests, potential threats, breaking news, and more.

Published: July 10, 2019

Update: In 2016, a flurry of records obtained by the ACLU revealed that Twit­ter, Face­book, and Instagram had secretly provided user data access to developers of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware, which was being used by law enforce­ment agen­cies as a tool to monitor protest­ors and activ­ists – partic­u­larly Black Lives Matter and other activ­ists of color. After criti­cism from advoc­ates and community members, Face­book, Instagram and Twit­ter tweaked their plat­form policies to expli­citly prohibit the use of company data for surveil­lance by law enforce­ment agen­cies. As a result of this policy change, we have seen a taper­ing of purchases by law enforce­ment agen­cies of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware used for “threat detec­tion.” Given this, the Bren­nan Center’s Law Enforce­ment Social Media Monit­or­ing map will no longer be updated with new purchases, serving instead as a static snap­shot of pre-2016 purchases. Moreover, note that the map does not purport to provide a compre­hens­ive picture of all social media monit­or­ing purchases prior to 2016, as procure­ment orders are self-repor­ted to Smart­Pro­cure.

Back­ground: In a public policy announce­ment after the 2016 disclos­ures, Face­book specified that developers cannot “use data obtained from [the plat­form] to provide tools that are used for surveil­lance.” It also noted that Face­book had already taken “enforce­ment action” against third party developers with data access, includ­ing compan­ies on the Bren­nan Center’s map. Simil­arly, Twit­ter reit­er­ated that it prohib­its developers “from allow­ing law enforce­ment – or any other entity – to use Twit­ter data for surveil­lance purposes.”

Prior to this policy change, social media monit­or­ing compan­ies like Geofee­dia, Babel Street, Dataminr, Digit­alStakeout, Media Sonar, and Snaptrends marketed almost exclus­ively to law enforce­ment agen­cies. In an archived proposal to the Fresno (Cali­for­nia) Police Depart­ment, Media Sonar describes itself as an “invest­ig­a­tions plat­form specific­ally designed for law enforce­ment” (emphasis theirs), noting that the plat­form enables law enforce­ment to “mine social media for crim­inal activ­ity, monitor and manage crisis events, and collab­or­ate across juris­dic­tions.” A promo­tional email to Fresno PD after the 2014 Ferguson protests includes a list of sugges­ted keywords to track for “pro-active poli­cing,” with a separ­ate category of “Mike Brown-related” keywords, includ­ing “justice­formike,” “Black­livesmat­ter,” “boycott,” and “Revolu­tion.”

After the ACLU revel­a­tions sparked the plat­forms to change their rules, these compan­ies were forced to recal­ib­rate, and some fizzled out of the market alto­gether. Geofee­dia, a plat­form that marketed directly to law enforce­ment and touted its product as a tool to monitor protests, laid off half of its staff after it was cut off from access­ing user data by Face­book, Instagram, and Twit­ter. Snaptrends, which claims to have developed its soft­ware specific­ally to “serve public safety organ­iz­a­tion [sic] and national intel­li­gence agen­cies in the United States,” said that it ceased all sales to state and local govern­ment agen­cies in Novem­ber 2016, turn­ing its atten­tion to “corpor­ate busi­ness” instead.  

Publicly avail­able data on the govern­ment procure­ment data­base Smart­Pro­cure shows that purchases of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware by law enforce­ment agen­cies have declined signi­fic­antly since social media plat­forms adop­ted these restric­tions. Given that law enforce­ment agen­cies’ use of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware for surveil­lance purposes would be a direct viol­a­tion of the plat­forms’ developer policies, and that the active developers of social media monit­or­ing soft­ware no longer market specific­ally to law enforce­ment, it seems likely that the few purchases made to the soft­ware developers who did stay in the law enforce­ment market are being used for other purposes and with more restric­tions on what they can access. For example, Dataminr, a “inform­a­tion discov­ery company” that received invest­ment fund­ing from the CIA, markets its social media monit­or­ing soft­ware as an early indic­ator alert service for first respon­ders. Babel Street, another company that still works with law enforce­ment, does not access indi­vidu­als’ Face­book profiles, and limits the data avail­able specific­ally to law enforce­ment users through the soft­ware.

Current status: The policy changes described above and the accom­pa­ny­ing decline in market­ing by social media monit­or­ing compan­ies directly to law enforce­ment seem to reflect posit­ive devel­op­ments in the push to protect free speech and expres­sion on social media and further recog­ni­tion of the civil liber­ties and civil rights concerns around social media monit­or­ing. However, despite a decline in purchases of third-party tools by law enforce­ment, many police depart­ments continue to monitor and use social media for invest­ig­at­ive purposes, through searches of Twit­ter and Instagram, under­cover accounts on Face­book, and more. Moreover, the rapidly expand­ing school secur­ity industry has seen the rise of compan­ies that market surveil­lance and monit­or­ing services to schools and parents. For more on the rise of expendit­ures by school districts on social media monit­or­ing tools, see the Bren­nan Center’s mapping and analysis at School Surveil­lance Zone.

Map Key Stats:

  • Total juris­dic­tions covered: 158
  • Juris­dic­tions with publicly avail­able policies on the use of social media for invest­ig­at­ive and/or intel­li­gence purposes: 18
  • Total amount spent by all juris­dic­tions: $5,159,967
  • Top five spend­ers
    • Flor­ida Depart­ment of Law Enforce­ment: $195,844
    • County of Los Angeles: $194,625
    • Virginia Depart­ment of Emer­gency Manage­ment: $181,568
    • Harris County, TX: $153,900
    • County of Macomb, MI: $143,3600 
  • Examples of abuse:
    • The Oregon Depart­ment of Justice and police in Oakland, CA monitored prom­in­ent figures of the Black Lives Matter move­ment by track­ing hasht­ags on social media.
    • Without inform­ing city govern­ment or the public, the Seattle Police Depart­ment paid $12,900 to soft­ware company Geofee­dia, viol­at­ing a provi­sion mandat­ing City Coun­cil approval for any purchase of surveil­lance equip­ment. 
    • In corres­pond­ence with the Fresno, CA, police depart­ment, a repres­ent­at­ive from soft­ware company Media Sonar proposed a list of keywords to scan in order to “identify illegal activ­ity and threats to public safety,” includ­ing “dissent,” “Black­LivesMat­ter,” and “WeWantJustice.”

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