Local Government Watching Social Media

Scores of local governments across the U.S. have bought software to monitor social media, many of them for security purposes, according to a new survey of procurements by county and city governments conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The report comes close on the heels of the controversy resulting from social networks’ sharing information about protesters with law enforcement via services like Geofeedia.

The Brennan Center analyzed a database of local government procurement contracts from around the country (only showing contracts with a minimum amount of $10,000). Most procurements were for one of eight different social media monitoring products: Geofeedia, Media Sonar, Snaptrends, Dataminr, DigitalStakeout, PATHAR, Meltwater, and Babel Street.

Overall, the survey counted 151 cities, counties, police departments, and other local government bodies that have made purchases meeting this minimum amount. The authors were quick to note that this is probably a very conservative tally, since the database only shows results for agencies that have opted into its procurement system.

The report also notes that it’s hard to know whether these social media monitoring products are actually being used by law enforcement specifically, since they are often purchased by the general procurement arm of local governments – however it’s also difficult to imagine too many other uses for this kind of information.

Citing previous reporting, the Brennan Center described a number of ways that law enforcement can use social media data to go beyond passive surveillance into active monitoring. This includes creation of undercover accounts and “targeted friend requests” to suspects and surveillance subjects, for example from attractive women.

Clearly social media surveillance gives law enforcement access to an impressive, and some might say disturbing, amount of information about individuals. In one example cited by the Brennan Center, a New York City police officer addressed one activist, Ashley Yates, by her Twitter handle. In Baltimore, police used social media data and facial recognition software to identify protesters with outstanding warrants and then arrest them.
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