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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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