ACLU Finds Huge Spike In Police Snooping Your Social Media

According to California police, using the hashtag #ImUnarmed makes you a potential threat to public safety

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Oct 05, 2016 at 3:09 PM ET

A new report from the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has found that police departments are increasingly using social media surveillance tactics in order to specifically target online activists.

After obtaining thousands of pages of public records, the ACLU discovered that 40 percent of the police agencies researched have access to social networking surveillance tools, and many of them have been added within the course of the past year. While this type of policing (deemed “invasive” by the authors of the report) falls within the legal realm of law enforcement’s legal rights, it’s notable that not a single document containing public notice, lawmaking procedures, or formal policies surrounding this practice was uncovered. It was also notable the way these tools were seemingly used to target protestors and advocates involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

One document from Geofeedia, a location-based social media surveillance software company that provided service to 13 law enforcement agencies in California, branded activist groups and unions as “overt threats,” and obtained e-mail correspondence with the San Jose Police that showed a company representatives advocating for surveillance of “the Ferguson situation.” Other promotional materials sent by the company boasted how its tech was used to help Baltimore County Police officers stay “one step ahead of the rioters,” protesting the killing of Freddie Gray. (Geofeedia did not respond to Vocativ’s request for comment.)

This new trove of research stems from 2015 work by the ACLU that found a whole host of “Mike Brown Related” keywords and hashtags were being suggested to police for the purpose monitoring “illegal activity and threats to public safety” by the tech company Media Sonar.

While the ACLU clearly believes this use of social media surveillance to be problematic in practice, it’s a tactic that’s probably not going anywhere any time soon. Obama administration policies dictating immigration officials refrain from reviewing social media accounts of those looking to secure U.S. visas have come under fire recently, and the Department of Homeland Security may soon begin asking foreigners to share their Twitter or Facebook handles when traveling within the U.S.