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New Details Emerge On How Police Use Social Media


The company Geofeedia caters to clients that want to do big searches of social media posts. Recently Twitter and Facebook said they're cutting off Geofeedia's access to their bulk data. The ACLU had raised concerns about how the service was marketed to police. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The thing to understand here is that this is public data. We're talking about tweets and other open social media posts, the kind of thing anybody could find.

But with services like Geofeedia, you can ramp up the scale. You can analyze millions of posts far more efficiently. It's the kind of tool that's used by marketers and increasingly by the police, and that's where Nicole Ozer sees the problem. She's with the ACLU of California.

NICOLE OZER: Many of these police departments are actually surveilling entire communities. Monitoring and recording social networking posts of every single person in a particular community is incredibly invasive.

KASTE: These massive searches are possible only with special big-pipe data access to the social media companies, the kind of access the Geofeedia lost after the ACLU got public documents showing the company suggesting to police that they could use Geofeedia to track protests.

OZER: We thought it was an important step that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram cut off Geofeedia, but Geofeedia is really just a piece in this puzzle.

KASTE: Geofeedia released a statement saying it believes in protecting civil rights, but this controversy goes beyond just the one company. The ACLU wants the data flow cut off to any service that enables police to do what the ACLU calls surveillance - for instance, to search for a phrase like black lives matter.

Nick Selby is a police detective in Texas. He's worried that this will end up depriving law enforcement of a valuable tool.

NICK SELBY: Just a couple of weeks ago, we had a runaway teenage girl, and she stole her father's handgun and her father's vehicle. And we used tools just like that to get a location on her. And the point of it was not to arrest her but to get her help.

KASTE: Selby gets the worry about surveillance, but he also says you can't just ban police from searching for certain words.

SELBY: If I were to say that I couldn't search for, for example, Muslims or black lives matter when I have a situation in which a Muslim has been threatened on the Internet by a stalker, I'd need to search for Muslims in order to find that. You never know what the unintended consequences of a hard and fast rule will be on public safety.

KASTE: He thinks the solution here is transparency. Make sure that the search terms used by police are subject to public scrutiny. Some departments have tried a different approach. Billy Grogan is chief of police in Dunwoody, Ga., and when his officers search social media, they first need to get their search approved by a supervisor.

CHIEF BILLY GROGAN: So you can't target particular groups or classes of people or different ideologies - if you're monitoring for an event then specific keyword terms that would be related to a threat at that event.

KASTE: But rules like that are still the exception in part because it doesn't really occur to police that they shouldn't be searching public data the same way a marketing company does. The ACLU's Nicole Ozer says that's a symptom of a bigger problem.

OZER: There's been a real blurring of the line between commercial issues and government surveillance and law enforcement using commercial products and vice versa.

KASTE: And she says the public has to know more about how police are using these commercial services before it can decide what's appropriate. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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