Pennsylvanians Should Know How the State Police Is Monitoring Social Media

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

That’s a line that is used so much that it’s become almost trite. But it’s oft-repeated because it is so true. And here in the Keystone State, the Pennsylvania State Police is doing everything in its power to block access to its policy on monitoring social media. So we’re headed to the state Supreme Court to get it.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s attempt to obtain the state police’s social media monitoring policy has been a two-year odyssey that started in March 2017. Using the state’s Right-to-Know Law, we submitted a request for the policy. In response, the state police’s open records officer sent us a nine-page document that was so heavily redacted that it was nonsensical. Some pages showed only the headers of some sections. Other pages were completely blacked out. No reasonable person could conclude that such a response was transparent or in the spirit of open records.

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law allows a person to appeal a denial or a partial denial of a request to the commonwealth’s Office of Open Records, an independent state agency that is intended to be a neutral arbiter in disputes over requests. After reviewing the state police’s social media policy in camera — a legal term that means the review is conducted privately and not as part of the public record — the OOR agreed with us that the policy should be an open record and that the state police’s claim that it could deny the request under the “public-safety” exception in the law was not plausible.

Score one for transparency.

But, as noted above, the saga did not end there. As they have the right to do, the state police appealed that decision to the Commonwealth Court, one of Pennsylvania’s appeals courts. Without reviewing the contents of the policy, the court sided with law enforcement and upheld the state police’s decision to give us the largely redacted policy.

It’s important to pause here for a moment and consider the implications of the court’s decision. By not reviewing the state police’s policy, which would have given the court an understanding of the rationale for redacting most of the document, the Commonwealth Court effectively gave state police — and any other law enforcement agency in Pennsylvania — a blank check to apply the public safety exception of the Right-to-Know Law to any open records request. That is a dangerous precedent and will allow law enforcement to act unchecked and without public accountability.

That’s why we’re taking this case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The public has a right to know how its state police monitors social media. We know that law enforcement can and has utilized social media to track activity protected by the First Amendment. This is not a hypothetical scenario. It’s real.

In 2018, the ACLU of Massachusetts released a report that found that the Boston Police Department had used software for tracking social media activity for a brief time in 2014 and then throughout 2015 and tracked keywords that included #MuslimLivesMatter, “protest,” “Ferguson,” and “ummah,” the Arabic word for community. The Boston police’s monitoring program swept up thousands of records, including a Facebook post by a then-City Councilmember who had mentioned Ferguson, Missouri, in writing about poverty and homelessness.

Fittingly, in a lesson on why public transparency is so important, Boston police dropped the program after a public backlash in 2016, when the department asked for bids on a $1.4 million dollar contract for another monitoring program, according to the Boston Globe.

In 2016, the ACLU of California found that the software company Geofeedia was marketing it’s monitoring product to law enforcement agencies as a means for tracking protests and referred to unions and activists as “overt threats.”

And we’re no strangers to such a controversy here in Pennsylvania. In 2010, another state agency, the Office of Homeland Security, contracted with a private company to provide daily bulletins of the activities of anti-fracking activists, antiwar organizers, animal rights demonstrators, and Muslims observing Ramadan, deeming them all threats to public safety. The director of the office was forced to resign over the incident, and then-Gov. Edward Rendell described the actions of the office as “extraordinarily embarrassing.”

That’s why we want to know what policy the Pennsylvania State Police has in place to control and restrict how social media monitoring is used in investigations. Power applied under cover of darkness can be extremely dangerous and damaging. We hope that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will shine some light on what the state police is doing.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

Pennsylvania is the northern version of Mississippi.

Anonymous

The central part of the state is nicknamed Pennsyltucky.

Anonymous

I understand police work can be difficult and confusing. Policemen often have to make quick decisions and fast responses. But too often they see themselves as autonomous, not having to be accountable to the public. This is very unhealthy.

Z spahr

The police throughout Pennsylvania especially in small towns are already running unchecked and unchallenged. I personally feel and have been pulled over for supposed traffic violations. I tend to work in state college and heard about all the security cameras and traffic cameras yet not a single officer I have encountered is not equipped with dash or body cameras when conducting stops, search and seizures, and investigations. Because of this I feel this gives every officer the opportunity to abuse their power over the people because the courts never seem to question an officer's word and take it as nothing but the truth.

Phil's mom

Spot on.

Anon

Fuck the police

Anonymous

"Absolute power corrupts ansolutely!"

Anonymous

The PSP dildo heads in the grey suits and black chin straps have no integrity. One scandel after the next. Pigs that suckle off the tax payers. Big money, big pensions, lots of waste.

Anonymous

The police work for the citizens they are to montior and protect not undermine they need to have limits and answer for all they do

Phil's mom

Yet when my son was killed with fentanyl and "discarded" in his own car, wecwere told they could not/had no cause to review Facebook messages of the "woman" involved. This despite us providing the msgs between her and our son and her stating that she was also talking to her "dude" who was going to give her K2 to sell my son. But they CAN do this? PA is so corrupt. Sickening.

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