Law Enforcement Agencies Spend Millions on Social Media Monitoring

A detailed map shows that agencies across the United States are paying substantial fees to third-party applications to learn more about the populations they are sworn to protect.

by / December 7, 2016
Image courtesy Brennan Center for Justice

In a world that is becoming increasingly communicative — where people often receive their news, share news, state their opinions and post pictures with their whereabouts via social media — the lines are perhaps a bit more blurry about how such information can be used. 

Last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, released a map that details specific cities, counties and law enforcement agencies across the United States that have spent at least $10,000 on social media monitoring software. 

All of the data — which comes from public reports, information from the government procurement database SmartProcure, public records requests via the ACLU of Northern California and the investigative news site MuckRock — found that nationwide, at least 151 police departments, cities and counties spent millions of dollars collectively on social media monitoring software. 

Additionally, the International Association of Police Chiefs found that more than 300 law enforcement agencies across the country use social media for listening or monitoring, and more than 400 agencies use it for intelligence purposes. 

“We hope people are able to use the map to understand how money is being spent,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. “What are the consequences and the implications? Is this being used to monitor 1st Amendment-protected information? Is this being used to monitor a certain kind of activism? People in a particular community can see if $30,000 or $100,000 was spent on this. This may trigger a public discussion. What kinds of power and capabilities are in the hands of law enforcement, and is this something the community is comfortable with? Are there policies around this?” 

The map focuses on purchases of eight social media monitoring products: Geofeedia, Media Sonar, Snaptrends, Dataminr, DigitalStakeout, PATHAR, Meltwater and Babel Street. Levinson-Waldman, who directed the efforts to create the map, said that as more companies start to appear in the database, they will be added to the map. 

Clicking a location on the map indicates the jurisdiction, the purchase amount, the years purchased, a description of the purchase along with sources, and PDFs of the purchase orders. For example, the map shows that Los Angeles County spent $137,625 from 2014-2016 on Geofeedia, a service that allows users to select particular geographic areas and search for public posts on social platforms. In Baton Rouge, La., officials spent $19,000 on Geofeedia from 2014-2016.  

While it may seem obvious that police departments use social media just as the public uses it, this is uncharted technology territory. In October, the ACLU of California obtained records that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram provided user data access to Geofeedia. Its findings included emails from Geofeedia representatives to law enforcement officials detailing special access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram user data — all of which have cut Geofeedia's access to their data.

“If I want to follow someone who I think is interesting, that’s different from the much broader analytical capabilities that these companies have,” Levinson-Waldman said. “If I see something, I may respond or re-tweet, but I don’t have the power to act. But the software programs can do a lot more in terms of digging into who is using particular hashtags, particular pictures, using geo-sensing and then creating networks of association.”

According to the Brennan Center, the social media monitoring products have the capability to read, interpret and categorize millions of posts in minutes. According to an article by Rachel Cohn and Angie Liao, two interns at the center, some social media monitoring products can interpret sarcasm in posts, evaluate the credibility and influence of a message, chart out the relationships between social media users, recognize and create alerts based on images, and pinpoint the movements of individuals.

“Certainly we can see that there are huge numbers of police departments that are buying this software,” Levinson-Waldman said. “Clearly they think it’s effective. Whether it is, we don’t know yet.”

The Brennan Center plans to continue to update the map as new information becomes available.

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.