While attention has been paid to the military-grade equipment that finds its way to local police departments, less emphasis has been placed on examining how police are constantly monitoring (and storing) information they find on social media.
Police across the country purchase and use programs to monitor online activity, and Montgomery County is no exception. Gaithersburg and Rockville have spent a combined $50,000 on a service called Geofeedia that allows local police to track posts on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and even identify where some of the posts are originating from. These services rely on algorithms to sift and sort through millions of social media posts in real time, allowing law enforcement to track and discover relationships between social media users.
Now, comes news that County Executive Ike Leggett wants more funding for an initiative to combat gangs that includes keeping a close tab on social media activity (FYI- there will be a public hearing to debate this request).
While there are examples of police using these tools to assist with criminal investigations, there have also been a disturbing number of cases where law enforcement have used them to track protests and political movements.
This technology has been reportedly used to monitor people protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and at Black Lives Matter rallies at the Mall of the Americas. Another company marketing the technology, Media Sonar, suggested police track hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #ImUnarmed.
The ACLU has also uncovered that Geofeedia’s marketing materials have referred to unions and activists as “overt threats” and that the company told police its product can help track the “Ferguson situation”. One California police department allegedly used the software to monitor South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protesters.
This is a dangerous development that could have a chilling effect on people wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights online and in the streets. Also, there is little information about where and how the data collected by the police is used, stored, or who has access to it.
“These programs are a deterrent to free speech,” said Baltimore activist Kwame Rose, who was arrested while protesting the mistrial of a Baltimore officer charged in the death of Gray. “It’s a waste of resources that could be spent on implementing programs for police reform.”