Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff's Social Media Tool Regularly Yielded False Alarms

In the first month and a half of 2016, alerts set up on the monitoring software went off at least 146 times, but none of the alerts documented over that six-week time span contained any hint of criminal activity.

by Ben Conarck, Florida Times-Union / May 31, 2017
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(TNS) — If you enjoyed that “bomb” vegan pizza enough to post about it on Instagram, you might have tipped off the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Office.

Last year the Sheriff’s Office set up social media alerts for bomb threats, high school violence and drug use, black activist groups and abortion-related postings in an apparent attempt to ensnare perceived threats before they materialized, according to public records obtained by the Times-Union. In the first month and a half of 2016, alerts set up on a monitoring software called Geofeedia went off at least 146 times, but the intelligence value of the captured postings appears to have been negligible.

Of the 146 Geofeedia alerts examined by the Times-Union, nearly half were false-alarm “bomb threats” — usually triggered by people describing food, beer and other things as “bomb.” More than 40 alerts were set off by an array of abortion-related postings set up under a “Roe v. Wade” alert that may have been used to monitor for threats against abortion clinics. High school campuses were monitored for violent language and drug references, and black protest movements against police shootings and former State Attorney Angela Corey were also closely watched.

None of the alerts documented over that six-week time span contained any hint of criminal activity.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department sergeant and social media surveillance expert, said that many departments that use the software set up broad search parameters and end up with more information that they know what to do with.

“Like anything else, it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ ” Giacalone said. “If you get way too much data initially, it’s overwhelming.”

QUERYING THE SYSTEM

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office canceled its contract with Geofeedia days after the software company lost access to data from social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. That followed revelations by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California that the tools were being used by police to monitor protesters demonstrating against the death-in-custody of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police and the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The Sheriff’s Office in March declined to say whether it still monitors social media after public records revealed that it had been using the technology to spy on police shooting protesters. In April, the office said it could not locate any policies guiding the use of social media monitoring software or any other social media tools.

Though civil rights advocates have bristled at law enforcement’s use of the technology across the nation and in Jacksonville to target free speech activity such as Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Giacalone stressed that there is no right to privacy online, especially with public postings. He added that while the dragnet searches that set off alerts like the ones obtained by the Times-Union rarely provide useful intelligence, more targeted searches are likely to yield better results for the Sheriff’s Office.

“Social media is the biggest law enforcement tool they’ve gotten since DNA,” Giacalone said.

Targeting specific geographical areas, surveillance tools like Geofeedia can be utilized to search an entire neighborhood immediately after a shooting to find leads and witnesses, Giacalone said. But the former cop stressed that while police departments are right to use the technology, they are doing themselves a disservice by not developing policies or practices around the surveillance tools to ensure against abuse of the systems.

“It’s almost like they think that if they put it on paper, they give defense attorneys a chance to attack it,” he said. “But not having anything is even worse. It looks like you’re trying to do something underhanded, but it’s really not that simple.”

FALSE ALARMS

The 146 alerts obtained by the Times-Union fell into four categories of named alerts: “Bomb Threat,” “NationalBlackOut,” “Roe v. Wade,” “Angela Corey Protests,” and “HS Alerts.”

Of the 67 “Bomb Threat” alerts, 15 of them described food, six of them described beer, and 20 used the word “bomb” as an adjective in some other way. One was a job listing, and sixteen were links to news articles with the word “bomb” in the headline. There were also two mentions of the phrase “photo bomb.”

“Bomb crab burger I had the other day,” one Instagram user said in a captured posting that was typical of the category.

The “NationalBlackout” alert appears to have been targeted for a New Black Panther Party-led movement to divest money from corporate-controlled interests and instead invest in black-owned businesses. None of the 13 postings ensnared under the alert appeared relevant, however. Two were set off by the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag and the rest were random mentions of the word “protest,” including multiple anti-circus protest postings.

In monitoring for protests against Corey, the former state attorney, the alerts were triggered by random postings simply containing the word “Angela” or the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag.

“Happy Valentines to you too thanks for the meal lol from my baby girl Angela,” one posting read.

The Roe v. Wade alert displayed the widest variety of keywords, including “abortion,” “murderer,” “Wade,” “Roe,” “Constitution,” “trimester,” “fetus,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “birth control,” “Planned Parenthood,” “Supreme Court,” “March for Life,” “protest” and “demonstration.”

The keywords monitored for on high school campuses included: “fight,” “fire,” “shoot,” “blow,” and “kill.”

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who follows the use of social media monitoring tools by police, said that postings picked up by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office alerts and documented in public records have included largely protected free-speech activity and useless miscellanea.

“It certainly seems like these kind of dragnet alerts are a waste of time,” Levison-Waldman said.

©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.