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How Do Police Monitor Social Media

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How actively do the police monitor social media?

by Jon Brodkin – Sep 9, 2021 8:09 pm UTC

The Los Angeles Police Department instructs officers to collect social media account information and email addresses when they interview people they have detained, according to documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

The Brennan Center filed public records requests with LAPD and police departments from other major cities, finding among other things that “the LAPD instructs its officers to broadly collect social media account information from those they encounter in person using field interview card.” The LAPD initially resisted making documents available but supplied over 6,000 pages after the Brennan Center sued the department.

One such document, a memo from then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck in May 2015, said that “when completing a FI report, officers should ask for a person’s social media and e-mail account information and include it in the ‘Additional Info’ box.” That includes Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook profiles, the memo said.

The Brennan Center has also been seeking police department records since January 2020 from Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, but is still fighting to get all the requested information.

Police Are Spending Millions Of Dollars To Monitor The Social Media Of Protesters And Suspects

Hundreds of local police departments across the United States have collectively spent about $4.75 million on software tools that can monitor the locations of activists at protests or social media hashtags used by suspects, according to new research.

The research, by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization focusing on criminal justice issues, aims to take a comprehensive look at the fast-growing phenomenon of social media-monitoring by law enforcement. Using public records, the Brennan Center tracked spending by 151 local law enforcement agencies that have contracted with start-ups that siphon data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites, largely out of the public eye.

The numbers we have are massively understated, said Faiza Patel, co-director of the organizations liberty and national security program, pointing out that agencies dont always have any obligation to report their use of the software. But it gives an indication of a phenomenon that is growing rapidly and flying under the radar.

Top spenders were the City of Los Angeles, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the County of Sacramento, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the County of Macomb, which is a large county in Michigan. Each spent roughly $70,000 over the past three years, Brennan found.

Law Enforcements Social Media Tactics

Over the past few years, police departments and government agencies have recognized the potential of social media to help them stop crime. These agencies use of online social sites has grown exponentially since 2009. Many police departments maintain their own Facebook and Twitter accounts to become familiar with the public and to obtain tips on a crime or a suspect. According to Bloomberg BNA, most criminal cases today utilize some form of social media activity as evidence. This evidence can be used either for or against the defendant.

Some of the different ways law enforcement may tap into social media resources include:

  • Status updates or posts to a friends wall or a group page
  • Activity that shows a suspects location at the time of the alleged crime

Law enforcement agencies may even use information provided by a suspects Facebook friends or Twitter followers. For example, investigators have received tips or information from cooperating witnesses who can see posts or pictures that are kept from public view. A police officer might even friend the person accused of the crime to gain access to private information.

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When Social Media Monitoring Crosses Boundaries

Social networks arent inherently good or bad: You can use them as tools to to solve crimes or commit murders. While Facebook sleuthing has led to arrests that most people would categorize as fair, this isnt always the case. Peaceful protests have seen many of their demonstrators arrested thanks to social media. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, a New York judge ruled public tweets dont enjoy the same protection as private speech, and ordered Twitter to hand over deleted tweets from one of the participants, which prosecutors used as evidence.

We all want to cheer when the bad guys get caught thanks to their social networking hubris. But when the tables are turned and police use these platforms to arrest someone for protesting or political dissent , its harrowing.

One thing that evens the ledger? Just as the Internet makes it easier to catch criminals, it also makes it easier for citizens to report abuse. The protests occurring in Brazil have grown more passionate after footage of police brutality during the first days made it online, urging more demonstrators into the streets and focusing global attention on abuses. Social media is a powerful tool, and it gives those in power the ability to run much more intense surveillance on the plugged-in population than they could in the past.

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First And Fourteenth Amendment Protections

Documents Reveal Widespread Abuse of Social Media Spying ...

The First and Fourteenth Amendments offer protections where surveillance is based on political or religious beliefs, associations, racial and ethnic identities, and other protected categories or activities. Surveillance can have a chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms, and surveillance that disproportionately targets a protected class can give rise to equal protection harms under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Social media monitoring can have serious chilling effects on protected speech and association. When police target individuals for surveillance because of their political viewpoints, people may choose to censor their online activity and associations to reduce the risk of governmental monitoring. Likewise, law enforcement may use social media to compile dossiers on people on the basis of First Amendment-protected activities and may share them among local, state, and federal agenciesthis can increase the risk that protesters later face retaliatory targeting in the form of deportation proceedings or unrelated criminal prosecutions.

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Police Using Social Media To Monitor Suspects And Make Arrests

A vast number of people today are involved with social media on a daily basis. From sharing pictures to keeping in touch with old friends, social media sites are a largely positive experience. However, many people may not realize that what they share online has the potential to be used against them if they are facing criminal charges. Law enforcement agencies in North Carolina have begun to track the social media activities of those they suspect of crimes.

People have, in fact, been arrested based on information that authorities received from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to Digital Trends, these arrests have included drunk drivers who posted photos or status updates regarding their activities, or others who shared their plans about committing a theft or buying illegal drugs.

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How Do Investigators Use Social Media Tools To Monitor Criminal Activity

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Law enforcement agencies are leveraging social media services such as Facebook and Twitter in a number of ways to help fight crime and serve their communities. Of particular interest is the rapidly evolving use of social media monitoring tools to find evidence of criminal activity which the criminals themselves often post to the Internet often leading quickly to their arrest and imminent conviction.

To understand the pace at which investigators are increasing usage of this ever-evolving digital landscape, we need look no further than some of the data revealed in a recent survey of active federal, state and local law enforcement officials conducted by LexisNexis in 2014.

Of those surveyed, 81 percent said they use social media for investigative purposes, 67 percent percent indicated that social media is a valuable tool in anticipating crime, and 73 percent believe using social media can help solve crimes faster. According to the survey, investigations leveraging social media grew in 2014 and is expected to continue to grow, with 78 percent of respondents saying they expect to use it even more over the next year.

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Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington law school who specializes in privacy issues, says police could run into trouble searching on the Internet.

“If officers were on the basis of gender and then making decisions on that basis, you could run into constitutional scrutiny,” Calo says. “And you’d be almost sure to if your keyword involved the word ‘Muslim.’ “

Calo says the law is fuzzier when it comes to other kinds of searches, such as political keywords. The law and the courts are far behind the technology, and no police department wants to become the test case. Calo says it’s not clear whether it would be illegal for police to monitor for a keyword such as “Occupy,” but that doesn’t mean police should feel free to do so.

“Any police officer ought to sort of think through a kind of publicity principle, which is, ‘If it were to get out that we did this exact search, what would the public reaction be?’ ” Calo says.

That’s why Keenan is now campaigning to get more police departments to set up internal rules for social media scanning. He thinks the tools are useful, and he’s worried that a public backlash could cause law enforcement to lose them.

At the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Keenan gave a speech warning his colleagues that social media monitoring is a “hot stove issue” for police.

” know what happens when you touch a hot stove you get burned,” he said.

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Digital Threats: How Law Enforcement Uses Social Media To Fight Crime

Social media use has transformed the world, changing both personal lives and professional lives. For law enforcement, Facebook in particular is revealing threats to communities. More and more police departments, in their commitment to protect and serve, are finding that social media can be an invaluable tool in their investigations.

How Does The Police Media Centre Get Its Information

The media team has access to most of the main information systems used by Police. While some enquiries may seem simple, they can often involve searching multiple systems and liaison with specific staff. There is no single system which holds all details about police operations, investigations and data.

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How Law Enforcement Buys Your Data No Warrant Needed

The good news is there are some privacy laws that govern if and how the government can get your data: The Electronic Communications Privacy Act , first enacted in 1986, established these rules.

But the law is several decades old. While it has been updated since 1986, many of its tenets dont really reflect how we use the internet today, or how much of our data stays in the hands of the companies that provide those services to us.

That means there are gray areas and loopholes, and for some things, the government doesnt have to go through any legal processes at all. Law enforcement can and does purchase location data from data brokers, for instance. And while location data companies claim that their data has been de-identified, experts say its often possible to re-identify individuals.

The notion is that if its available for sale, then its okay, said Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation . Of course, one of the problems is that a lot of these data brokers are getting information without going through the consent process that you might want.

This could change if something like the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which bans law enforcement from purchasing commercially available data, were to become law. But for now, the loophole is open.

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Could Policing Social Media Help Prevent Terrorist Attacks

Following the Dec. 2 San Bernardino massacre that left 14 people dead and 22 injured, authorities have been trying to piece together the background of husband-and-wife shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik and the digital trail they left online. Authorities say dating as far back as 2012 — well before her marriage to Farook — expressed her support for radical, violent jihad.

CBS News has learned that Malik had private chats on Facebook with her sister where she pledged support for violent jihad and said she wanted to participate. These post began before Malik came to the United States and continued after she arrived.

Yet those warning signs were never seen by U.S. officials who granted Malik a K-1 “fiancée” visa to enter the country, prompting new questions about what the government and tech companies should be doing to prevent such threats from slipping through the cracks.

The Department of Homeland Security says it began three pilot programs in 2014 to examine whether screening social media was consistent with current laws and privacy protections, CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues reported. A review of the policy is underway.

Needle in a haystack

While finding the next Malik might be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, sites like Facebook and Twitter do have measures in place to monitor threatening and hateful speech as well posts that could potentially be linked to acts of terrorism.

What Does The Law Say

Despite widespread use of social media by police, there are few laws that specifically constrain law enforcements ability to engage in social media monitoring. In the absence of legislation, the strongest controls over this surveillance tactic are often police departments individual social media policies and platform restrictions, such as Facebooks real name policy and Twitters prohibition against using its API for surveillance. While the constitutional landscape is unsettled, constitutional protections for privacy, freedom of speech and association, and equal protection may provide mechanisms for individuals to challenge the governments collection and use of their social media data.

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Lapds New Tech: Address Threats Before They Occur

The Brennan Centers records further revealed the LAPD is now seeking to use technology from a new company, Media Sonar, which also tracks social media for police. In the 2021 budget, the LAPD allotted $73,000 to purchase Media Sonar software to help the department address a potential threat or incident before its occurrence.

The extent of the LAPDs Media Sonar use is unclear, but the companys communications with the LAPD have raised questions. In one message, the firm said its services can be used to stay on-top of drug/gang/weapon slang keywords and hashtags. Levinson-Waldman said she feared the company or police would misinterpret slang or lack proper context on local groups and language, and she noted research showing that online threats made by gang-affiliated youth largely dont escalate to violence.

Media Sonar also told the LAPD it offers pre-built keyword groups to help jumpstart implementation of threat models, and helps police cast a wide net. The firm also said it could provide a full digital snapshot of an individuals online presence including all related personas and connections.

The messages from Media Sonar suggested that the department needed significant safeguards to ensure that keywords didnt disparately target marginalized communities and checks to ensure the data was accurate, Levinson-Waldman said.

Why Does It Take Time Before Victims Are Named

When it comes to social media monitoring, law enforcement struggles with privacy, volume

We must be satisfied that all next-of-kin have been advised before we can release a victims name. This can take time, particularly if the family situation is complex or relatives are overseas. Sometimes we must also liaise with the Coroner. Identification of a victim on social media does not mean that all next-of-kin are aware of a death.

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How You Can Prevent This

When it comes to your data held by third parties, you dont have much control or say over if and what theyll disclose. Youre relying on laws written before the modern internet existed, a judges interpretation of them , and the companies that have your data to fight them. If youre notified about a pending order, you might be able to fight it yourself. Thats no guarantee youll win.

The best way to protect your data is to use services that dont get it in the first place. Privacy concerns, including the ability to communicate free from government surveillance, have made encrypted messaging apps like Signal and private browsers like DuckDuckGo popular in recent years. They minimize the data they collect from users, which means they dont have much to give if investigators try to collect it. You can also ask services to delete your data from their servers or not upload it to them in the first place . The FBI cant get much from Apples iCloud if you havent uploaded anything to it.

At that point, investigators will have to try to get the data they want from your device … which is a whole other can of legal worms.

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