On November the 25th, The Mercury News reported that the Fremont Police Department had spent approximately 23,000 dollars to monitor social media users and their posts. The expenses were incurred during the course of a year and were the result of two contracts. Despite failing to notify the public, the Fremont Police signed contracts with Media Sonar and Geofeedia to better monitor social media. During the past few years, the demand for social media monitoring has grown for law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The ACLU in Northern California released a report in September, which questioned 63 law enforcement agencies.
According to the report, 20 of those agencies had acquired monitoring tools for social media and none had notified the public or asked for citizen input. Despite the controversy, it is highly likely that law enforcement agencies will continue to engage in such activities. Fremont’s Chief of Police, Richard Lucero, insists the tools are not used for tracking or surveillance. Instead, Lucero admits the tools are beneficial for searching for missing kids, monitoring suicide attempts, combating bullying, and tracking gang activity.
Geofeedia came under heavy criticism earlier this year, when it was discovered the firm was helping law enforcement monitor protesters via social media. This resulted in Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram cutting off access to information feeds provided to the startup firm. Geofeedia makes it possible for clients to monitor social media data based on a specific geographical location. In February of this year, the company claimed to have approximately 500 customers, which included media, corporate firms, and marketing agencies. The Chicago-based firm offers monitoring tools for various social channels, including YouTube, Picasa, Instagram, Twitter, and more.
While Geofeedia’s tools will undeniably be controversial for privacy advocates, it is true that they can be used effectively by companies and marketing firms. The Canadian firm, Media Sonar, is very similar. It allows clients to examine location-based and non-geo data from various social networks. According to the firm’s website, their technology has proven to be effective for assessing threats and improving campus safety. The system is also suitable for monitoring events in real-time. Of course, these aren’t the only companies getting in on the action. Reports have named Snaptrends, DigitalStakeout, PATHAR, Babel Street, Meltwater, and Dataminr as other monitoring firms used by law enforcement agencies.
The Brennan Center for Justice recently published their examination of 151 cities, counties and law enforcement agencies in the United States. The study concluded that the biggest spenders were Florida’s FDLE, the City of Los Angeles, and the County of Sacramento. These groups had spent around 70,000 dollars each during the past 3 years. As a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the country had spent 4.75 million on these tools between 2013 and 2016. In Aurora, California, the local Police Department admitted to using the Geofeedia service to track down a woman, who had smoked marijuana in the police department’s parking lot.
The spokesperson for the Aurora Police, Dan Ferrelli, admitted the agency used the service about a year. The service was later terminated, since it was determined it wasn’t worth the investment. While it is true that crimes are sometimes reported on social media, before they’re carried out, this is likely very rare. The Fremont Chief of Police suggests the social media monitoring tools are used for bullying and to detect those with suicidal ideations.
This seems very suspicious since numerous studies have concluded that Facebook can lead directly to depression. In all likelihood, you have one or two friends, who love discussing their misery on the social network. Will California law enforcement agencies visit the homes of every Facebook user, who simply wakes up on the wrong side of the bed? If so, they’ll need to start a recruitment drive as soon as possible.