A plan by Denver police to collect and analyze large amounts of social media data recalls the “spy files” of the early 2000s and deserves more scrutiny, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The Daily Dot, an online publication that follows technology trends, uncovered the purchase earlier this year by the Denver police department of several subscriptions to Geofeedia, a program that can collect and analyze social media posts from areas as large as cities or as small as a single building.
Here’s how the company describes its tool: “Aggregating social media posts from any user-defined location in the world allows you to stay ahead of topics, trends and situations with proactive insights and alerts from real-time location-based intelligence. You can discover trends and patterns within the world’s largest set of location-based social data to inform better decision-making. And you can respond effectively and efficiently based on real-time location-based insights.”
Other cities have used Geofeedia to keep tabs on protests and parades, and in the requisition request, Denver police made mention of last year’s Marade, when protestors from Black Lives Matter disrupted the event, and the 4/20 rally as types of events police might want to monitor.
The ACLU of Colorado announced Thursday that it has filed a public records request with the Denver Police Department to better understand how the department is and is not using Geofeedia. The request asks for the department’s current intelligence policy and any additional policies and training materials regarding social media surveillance. The ACLU also requested a full list of search terms that officers have used while deploying Geofeedia.
ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said the mass monitoring of social media posts, even if those posts are public, raises similar questions to the files that Denver police maintained on many activists in the early 2000s. Those files also used publicly available information like newspaper clippings, letters to the editor and license plates to track the legal activities of groups like the American Friends Service Committee, police accountability groups like CopWatch, the American Indian Movement and even people attending prayers at a local mosque.
These “spy files” sometimes described activists as “criminal extremists” based on protected First Amendment activities.
The ACLU sued the Denver Police Department, and in a settlement, the department agreed to a new Criminal Information Intelligence policy. Silverstein said the public should know if the department has since revised that policy and what use is being made of Geofeedia’s capabilities.
“Denver agreed to new policies and pledged to stop monitoring the First Amendment activities of Denver residents,” Silverstein said. “Now they’ve purchased this software that is marketed as helping them monitor free speech activities. … Have they resumed the spy files activities they said they would abandon?”
Silverstein also noted that Denver police officers have repeatedly been reprimanded for using police databases for personal purposes, like finding out information about exes or people the officers were romantically interested in, as the Associated Press recently reported. Using databases for personal purposes is against federal law, yet still occurs, while the public has no legal protection from police misusing social media monitoring tools for personal purposes, he said.
“We would like to know how they’re using this, what the policies are about its use,” Silverstein said. “It’s a special concern in light of the spy files controversy from a few years ago. Another issue is that this was purchased with no public input, no City Council input.”
The subscriptions were purchased with money from seized assets.
The Denver Police Department said in an email that said the purpose of the Geofeedia subscription is to monitor criminal activity.
“The Denver Police Department utilizes the cloud based platform to identify open source posts that may assist with the prevention of violent acts and to assist with identifying criminal activity,” police records administrator Mary Dulacki wrote. “The platform also allows the department the ability to gain an awareness on events which could have an impact on public safety.”
In response to a follow-up question about the monitoring of large public events, she referred back to the justification given for the purchase in police records.
“You are able to see real time potential threats being made to an event,” police Lt. William Mitchell wrote, describing an incident in California in which police found a woman making threats to the Super Bowl parade over social media. He also described instances where police have identified witnesses and suspects in crimes via social media posts.
This story has been updated to include police response.
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