Police are increasingly using social media surveillance tools

We’re approaching a level of social unrest that we haven’t seen since the days of the Civil Rights movement. That means law enforcement agencies are trying to figure out how to manage and circumvent the unrest — a lot of which has resulted from the police killings of unarmed black people — through surveillance. You may remember that, back in August, Bloomberg found out that police in Baltimore had been secretly operating “wide-area surveillance” throughout the area. Well, that’s not the only type of surveillance law enforcement agencies are using.

This summer, the American Civil Liberties Union of California requested records from 63 police departments, sheriffs and district attorneys across California. Of the records they received, 40 percent of the agencies (20) used social media surveillance tools, and most of them started using them within the last year.

But these agencies didn’t notify the public or lawmakers about their use of this type of surveillance. And none of the agencies examined by the ACLU have any policies covering how to use those tools in a way that actually protects civil rights and civil liberties.

With these social media surveillance tools in hand, law enforcement agencies are able to target activists, according to the ACLU’s analysis of records. Agencies are using tools like MediaSonar, X1 Social Discovery and Geofeedia, some of which actively market their products as tools to target activists.

In addition to the fact that law enforcement agencies didn’t tell anyone about their use of social media surveillance tools, it’s unsettling to see the role Silicon Valley plays in all of this. Law enforcement agencies are using tools that are venture-backed and covered by the tech press.

Geofeedia, for example, has raised over $24 million in funding and is used by at least 13 law enforcement agencies in California, according to the ACLU. This raises the question: What responsibility do these tech companies and their investors have to the public? More on that another day.

The ACLU is now pushing for more transparency and accountability through a multi-city legislative initiative, Community Control Over Policing Surveillance. The aim is to mandate that local legislative bodies give communities an opportunity to review policies and participate in decisions around surveillance technologies.

“Whenever any kind of surveillance tech is being considered in a community, whether social media surveillance, license plate readers or stingrays — before any of those things are considered — there needs to be, at a minimum, public debate and conversation,” ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director Nicole Ozer told me. “And making sure the right questions are asked and answered about what’s the purpose of the surveillance tech and how it’s going to impact community members. All these kinds of questions that are sort of basic in making sure police and other law enforcement don’t have tools that are leading to discriminatory or abusive policing.”

Some cities in California have made progress in police surveillance and transparency. That includes Fresno, where community organizers have pressured the police to scale back their social media surveillance program and are now working on passing a surveillance tech ordinance; Oakland, where community members formed a Privacy Commission that now is now advising the City Council on surveillance decisions and is working on a surveillance tech ordinance; and Santa Clara, which successfully passed a law to block secret police surveillance.

The goal is to get as many of these ordinances passed as possible, and to increase opportunities for police surveillance transparency addressed on the state and federal level.

“The work we’re doing on the local level is to try to restore some of the types of transparency and oversight that existed before when city councils and board of supervisors would have to approve budgets,” Ozer said. “Because of federal grant money, much of that has been circumvented. Now there’s all of this secrecy. Local ordinances are a step in terms of being able to make sure that some of those mechanisms for community control are put back.”