Police Use of Social Media Surveillance Software Is Escalating, and Activists Are in the Digital Crosshairs

It goes without saying that speaking out against police violence or government overreach shouldn’t land you in a surveillance database. But it can, and it does.

The ACLU of California has received thousands of pages of public records revealing that law enforcement agencies across the state are secretly acquiring social media spying software that can sweep activists into a web of digital surveillance.

image of document
A document from our investigation refers to activist groups as "overt threats."

This set of public records requests is part of our ongoing work with community groups to shine a light on surveillance technologies and call for community control in decision-making around policing. Last year, we worked with local activists in Fresno to reveal that its police department was using a MediaSonar social media surveillance tool that boasted the capacity to identify so-called “threats to public safety” by monitoring hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed, #PoliceBrutality, and #ItsTimeforChange.

But we had a hunch that Fresno was not an isolated case.

So this summer, we requested records from 63 police departments, sheriffs, and district attorneys across California. And what we learned from the documents was alarming.

Of the responses we’ve received, 40% of the agencies (20 in total) have acquired social networking surveillance tools — many of them in the last year.

Social Media Surveillance map

We found no evidence in the documents of any public notice, debate, community input, or lawmaker vote about use of this invasive surveillance.

And no agency produced a use policy that would limit how the tools were used and help protect civil rights and civil liberties.

The utter lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight is particularly troubling because social media surveillance software used by California law enforcement — tools like MediaSonar, X1 Social Discovery, and Geofeedia — are powerful. And our records from Fresno and several other communities reveal that some have been marketed in ways to target protesters.

Our records show that Geofeedia’s marketing materials, for instance, refer to unions and activist groups as “overt threats,” and suggest the product can be used in ways that target activists of color. At least 13 California law enforcement agencies have used or acquired Geofeedia.

Geofreedia email
This email was sent by Geofeedia to the San Diego Sheriff

In one exchange with law enforcement, a company representative suggested to San Jose Police that they should use the product to surveil the “Ferguson situation,” even though the city is roughly 2,000 miles from Ferguson, Missouri. San Jose Police did in fact use Geofeedia software to monitor South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh protesters only a few days after acquiring it.

Geofreedia email 2

An email to the San Diego Sheriff touts a “collection” of social media content curated by Geofeedia following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson.

Los Angeles District Attorney email

And yet another promotional email invites the Los Angeles District Attorney to learn how Baltimore used the software to monitor and “stay one step ahead of the rioters” after the police killing of Freddie Gray.

Law enforcement should not be using tools that treat protesters like enemies.

The racist implications of social media surveillance technology are not surprising. We know that when law enforcement gets to conceal the use of surveillance technology, they also get to conceal its misuse. Discriminatory policing that targets communities of color is unacceptable — and secretive, sophisticated surveillance technologies supersize the impact of racial profiling and abuse.

The good news is that we’ve seen that when surveillance is forced into the light, communities have the power to call out racist policing practices and stop discriminatory surveillance in its tracks.

Black Lives Matter rally Fresno 2015
Activists take to the streets in Fresno at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2015

Remember Fresno? Armed with proof of Fresno’s social media surveillance experiment, a diverse coalition of local activists known as Faith in the Valley successfully mobilized and organized to pressure the police to roll back their social media surveillance program. The community is now pushing to pass a surveillance technology ordinance to make sure all surveillance technologies are publicly debated.

Oakland demonstration
A mobilization against Oakland’s planned Domain Awareness Center

In Oakland, community members organized against plans to build an expansive Domain Awareness Center that would have collected and stored hundreds of terabytes of data on Oakland residents. Now Oakland has a Privacy Commission that advises the City Council on surveillance decisions and is currently drafting a surveillance technology ordinance.

Santa Clara County Board Ordinance
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a surveillance technology ordinance in 2016

And in Santa Clara County, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, a diverse coalition successfully organized against plans to buy a Stingray cell phone tracker and then worked to enact a comprehensive surveillance technology ordinance that requires transparency, accountability, and oversight for all surveillance technologies. In this spirit, a powerful coalition of national organizations is launching a multi-city legislative initiative, Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS), to introduce more local laws to bring transparency and community control to the acquisition and use of local police surveillance technologies.

Take Control graphic
Community Control Over Police Surveillance

In this spirit, a powerful coalition of national organizations is launching a multi-city legislative initiative, Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS), to introduce more local laws to bring transparency and community control to the acquisition and use of local police surveillance technologies.

Here in California, community members are working in Palo Alto, Fresno, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz to ensure that similar laws are introduced in their cities.

Whether it’s social networking surveillance, stingrays, or something else we haven’t heard of yet — it’s time to push secret surveillance into the light.

We have the power to stop discriminatory surveillance and put control where it belongs — in the hands of the community.

Read more about community control and surveillance technology in California:

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Anonymous

Deport any terrorists acting folks. Good riddance.

Anonymous

And who gets to define 'terrorists(sic) folks?' You?

Anonymous

Other rights groups are obtaining signatures from their supporters to try to persuade Lester Holt to address issues most press and media organizations have ignored for 15 years. The ACLU should do the same.

Ideas to suggest: After 9/11 we no longer have an Independent Judiciary that provides Judicial Review or constitutional "checks & balances" over the political branches. Today we literally have third world style Kangaroo Courts that decide the guilty verdict BEFORE the trial (or testing) of the evidence and oath-sworn testimony. Suspects and Persons of Interest can be convicted or even assassinated without "confrontation" by his or her accusers.

The life-blood of a free and independent Press survives only by having a strong First Amendment/U.S. Constitution to restrain government authority. Why the mainstream Press has worked against their own interests should be a debate question. The ACLU should petition it's supporters to demand these issues be addressed in the 2016 Presidential Debates.

Anonymous

Why start an article with "It goes without saying . . . "? In other words, if it truly goes without saying, why say it?

Your point is obviously that it DOES NOT go without saying that "speaking out against police violence or government overreach shouldn’t land you in a surveillance database. "

You need to learn to write. Your editors need to learn to edit.

Anonymous

The lead said that one point went without saying, not everything addressed in the article. "It should go without saying...", would have been stronger, but how about we pay at least as much attention to the issues, as to the writing. Learn how to prioritize, and learn how to be civil.

Anonymous

Simple answer: don't be an armchair activist who uses social media...

Anonymous

Really? My physical disability should disqualify me from communicating with other activists, serving support functions, and making others aware of issues? Very well thought out. "Simple" is definitely the word.

Anonymous

I read the whole article but I still don't know what this surveillance is beyond looking for hashtags. How do they look? What else do they look for? How do they know what's in statuses that aren't open to the public? How do they know the real identities of the people posting? What do they do with the information? This is very important information that I didn't see.

indio007

Organizations that oppose police surveillance will be watched very closely , I would wager.

Anonymous

This is why I will never donate to you. Such dishonesty... You want to talk about the Constitution while ignoring the White people who've been assaulted and the millions in property damages. Lying by omission is still lying. If you had your way, police officers wouldn't have firearms.

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