When it comes to police and law enforcement in the United States, we tend to cover a lot of brutality and violence, especially against people of color, sex workers, and incarcerated folks. It’s imperative to continue covering these incidents and working to bring survivors (and their families and loved ones) justice. However, a less-discussed but also hugely important aspect is how police have been stomping on people’s privacy and First Amendment rights by using technology and social media. One deep-dive example comes to us in a new report from Brennan Center, a non-profit, as covered by The Guardian.
According to a public records request filed by the Brennan Center, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) authorized its officers to essentially collect information on social media about civilians—including folks who have not been arrested, nor even accused of a crime. According to the report, there is meager evidence that this degree of monitoring is even useful to the department. But even if it was useful, it’s still grossing invasive, especially when we remember it’s largely communities of color targeted by police.
Information collected by police will become part of the data used in Field Interview (FI) cards. FI cards include, for example, biographical information about people, including even social security numbers, e-mail addresses, and social media accounts, like Instagram and Facebook. According to the report, the LAPD uses a new tool called “Media Sonar” that compiles profiles on individuals and identifies links between people. This is especially concerning for activists and advocates, as we know that social media surveillance is an ongoing concern when it comes to police presence at protests.
Even online, we know it’s easy for behaviors to be taken out of context. For example, people might “follow” or “like” an account or tweet because they agree—but they also might be “following” it to keep track of information to write an article, work on an opposition response, or to educate themselves on all sides of an issue. Someone also might appear to have a social “friendship” with a person or organization—say, sending many private messages, resharing content, or even engaging in back-and-forth dialogues, but not actually know the person in real life, or even know their real identity.
For most of us who are very online, none of that is surprising. But when it comes to people historically targeted by police, circumstances can very suddenly turn against them when someone’s “like” or friendship history is painted to reflect a very different reality.
One internal document found by the Brennan Center includes a list of hashtags and keywords the LAPD appeared to have monitored using Geofeedia up until 2017. Many of these searches related to Black Lives Matter and included hashtags related to Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, SayHerName, and names of people killed by police officers. On the other hand, the list did not include hashtags for far-right protests or movements.
Now, officers do have some guidelines on using social media surveillance; they’re not allowed to use these resources for personal reasons or anything illicit or illegal. The policy does not reflect any limits on how long one can be monitored, and officers have discretion over who to surveil and for how long. Officers can even create personas online to investigate or engage with trends, tactics, and profiles.
The takeaway? People deserve privacy, dignity, and respect, and that includes our social media presence. When folks talk about defunding the police, this scenario is part of what we mean—imagine if the money that goes towards collecting data on civilians, who haven’t even been arrested or charged, went to housing people? Feeding people? Paying teachers more? A better world is possible, but we have to keep working for it.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.