Florida Police Department Used Social Media to ‘Spy’ on Protestors

(Photo: WOKV)

The NSA’s monitoring of private email and phone messages has been the cause of much debate in recent years. But what about the growing number of local law enforcement agencies that monitor social media to obtain information on the people in their jurisdictions?

Taking the practice a step further, some police departments have even begun using social media posts to monitor private citizens participating in lawful activities.

That’s the situation in Jacksonville, Florida, according to a recent Florida Times-Union report. The report revealed that for several years the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office used a social media data collection service called Geofeedia to track and monitor peaceful protestors.

There are legitimate uses of such services by law enforcement, but, according to documents obtained by the Times-Union, Jacksonville law enforcement set up alerts about First Amendment-protected activity by residents not accused of any crimes.

The Sherriff’s Office configured Geofeedia to notify the Crime Analysis Unit when the program located certain keywords like “police,” “rally,” and “#blacklivesmatter” in social media posts within a specific geographical area.

“It’s like they designed their alerts to give civil libertarians a heart attack,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security program, after reviewing the public records obtained by the Times-Union.

The Sherriff’s Office told the Times-Union that they have cancelled their contract with Geofeedia, but they didn’t say whether or not they still monitor social media accounts.

“Its use was discontinued by this agency when it was determined that the cost/benefit was not satisfactory,” Lauri-Ellen Smith, senior spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement.

It’s easy to understand why such monitoring might make Jacksonville residents uncomfortable, but is it illegal?

There are currently no Florida laws that ban the use of such tactics, but Levinson-Waldman told the Times-Union that monitoring protected free speech may be unconstitutional.

Social media surveillance of protesters has the potential to violate their First Amendment rights if it “tangibly chills” them from continuing to participate in that activity, she said.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruled in October 2015, for example, that the New York Police Department’s monitoring of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey may have violated the First Amendment in that it inhibited people from continuing to attend their mosques.

Still, monitoring social media can be a viable and effective tool for law enforcement, as long as it’s utilized in the appropriate manner.

“The trick is, like any tool, it gets abused,” said Kalev Leetaru, a senior George Washington University fellow who studies how data changes societies. “There are definitely abuses of these technologies in really bad ways, so that’s what people fixate on and forget there are law enforcement agencies using these tools in a good way.”

{ 28 comments… add one }
  • loupgarous May 2, 2017, 1:58 pm

    What part of “social media” don’t you get? Those are public communications, and there’s absolutely no law against ANYONE reading them. They fall neatly into the same legal category as printed want-ads and craigslist – communications readily accessible by ANYONE.
    If I want my communications truly private, that’s what the TOR anonymizer system is for. For even more privacy, there are apps for cheap variations of the Blackberry PDA to create private, secure “clouds” only accessible by those with the same $50 palm-top sized computer and mobile phone interface.
    This article addresses a non-existent issue. If you post your business on social media, you’re PUBLISHING it to everyone. The former Subway “sandwich artist” who posted a selfie of herself in uniform and then under it expressed how happy she was two police officers were killed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi deserved her firing and all the flak (a very large amount) she got in local newspapers. And if the Jones County Sheriff’s Office was paying close attention to everything she placed on social media before and after that – good! They might just have gotten a lead on a domestic terror outfit – almost all of the mass killings done for political reasons involve American citizens who decide taking innocent lives is the way to go.

  • Mahatma Muhjesbude April 7, 2017, 6:28 pm

    I really can\’t believe how many brainwashed people here don\’t understand the difference between police spying and not police spying. So I guess the police state\’s mind control is working well these days. But I\’ll try one more time briefly and if you can\’t \’get it\’ , well…then you deserve what you eventually DO get, and deserve it as well.It\’s complicated but very basically, it\’s one thing to be on Routine Patrol or investigation and see an \’on view\’ active crime in progress or imminently about to happen and affect an arrest, but it is an entirely different and unconstitutional to put a specific search app monitor on a public venue targeting specific groups to search for flag words to try monitor a person\’s perfectly legal activity because you are thinking and hoping they are likely to do something just because they resemble a group that was involved in some previous trouble. That IS Spying by definition. Look it up.In other words, an American citizen doing nothing wrong cannot be arbitrarily or capriciously searched, seized, detained, followed, electronically monitored, investigatively targeted, or otherwise harassed and made fearful, on private OR public venue.That\’s what probable cause investigations and warrants are for. Yes, we know the federal gestapo agencies already do it under a false homeland security pretext, and now the local police state agencies are joining the rights violations party. But that doesn\’t make it right, even though they get away with it because so many of us make it too easy for criminal cops to resist.

  • Mahatma Muhjesbude April 7, 2017, 6:27 pm

    I really can’t believe how many brainwashed people here don’t understand the difference between police spying and not police spying. So I guess the police state’s mind control is working well these days. But I’ll try one more time briefly and if you can’t ‘get it’ , well…then you deserve what you eventually DO get, and deserve it as well.

    It’s complicated but very basically, it’s one thing to be on Routine Patrol or investigation and see an ‘on view’ active crime in progress or imminently about to happen and affect an arrest, but it is an entirely different and unconstitutional to put a specific search app monitor on a public venue targeting specific groups to search for flag words to try monitor a person’s perfectly legal activity because you are thinking and hoping they are likely to do something just because they resemble a group that was involved in some previous trouble. That IS Spying by definition. Look it up.

    In other words, an American citizen doing nothing wrong cannot be arbitrarily or capriciously searched, seized, detained, followed, electronically monitored, investigatively targeted, or otherwise harassed and made fearful, on private OR public venue.

    That’s what probable cause investigations and warrants are for. Yes, we know the federal gestapo agencies already do it under a false homeland security pretext, and now the local police state agencies are joining the rights violations party. But that doesn’t make it right, even though they get away with it because so many of us make it too easy for criminal cops to resist.

    • loupgarous May 2, 2017, 2:05 pm

      Wrong, wrong, wrong.

      Social media posts are in plain view. That absolves anyone, including police agencies, from needing a warrant, or even probable cause to read them. If you publish in an open forum, you have ZERO expectation of privacy, legally or morally, for what you say there.

      Don’t you think BATFE has a guy whose job it is to read what we say here? I’ll be more than happy to go down to Gulfport and say anything I’ve said here to the local BATFE agents. I have nothing to hide, and I do not violate the law.

      If you’re lame-brained enough to say anything in a totally public forum (which all social media are) which you don’t want the police reading, sorry. You don’t have a legal or moral leg to stand on. If you want privacy, stay off social media.

      • 97bravo20 June 2, 2017, 8:12 am

        I agree with Loupgarous . Expectation of privacy is a legal concept which has been tested in the courts and deemed the barometer for a legal search/seizure. As an example , if you are stopped for running a red light and happen to have a open bottle of booze on the passenger seat you have created probable cause by leaving it in plain sight. Another is the searching of refuse put out for pickup. Once it leaves your property its fair game (buy a shredder people). NSA’s monitoring of 100% of all communication worldwide is another story. However, no one is actually “listening”. The albeit questionable “probable cause” comes in when their algorithms determine the phrasing, key word combination, GPS coordinates and who know what else all line up and the computer “kicks” your communication out to a human for review. So the concepts of expectation of privacy, probable cause, in the public domain and in plain site are all time tested legal issues. If you don’t want just anyone reading your social media posts don’t make them public. Seems obvious, right?

  • Mike Watkins April 7, 2017, 11:33 am

    This all looks like a bid by lawyers for more hefty fees!

    Trying to make it illegal for Law Enforcement to view PUBLIC communications? What a crock!

    Besides there is this little matter of outfits like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street and their ilk being subversive and encouraging law-breaking behavior. Not quite the peaceful protesters they claim to be.

  • Dustin Eward April 7, 2017, 11:03 am

    Just one of many reasons that grown-ups don’t use social media.

    They are private entities, they can do what they please, including kissing government butt by giving them access to everything.

  • bob h April 7, 2017, 10:29 am

    The intercept of private email/phone messages is a red herring because, unlike monitoring PUBLIC social media sites, it’s an intrusion into PRIVATE communications. Following the concerns of some civil libertarians that governmental monitoring of social media worrisome because it “might create a chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment” to its logical conclusion I can only assume those libertarians don’t want government officials/agencies/employees reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal because it might stifle those publications’ editorial policies.

  • JohnE April 7, 2017, 10:06 am

    This is one more reason why you should never post on social media. The list of reasons not to post online is so extensive it amazes me people still do it. Once you post something it is out there for everyone to see.

    • loupgarous May 2, 2017, 2:09 pm

      Er, John? You’re posting on social media NOW. SO am I.

  • JS April 7, 2017, 9:39 am

    Only a moron doesn’t know that police officers routinely look at social media. I give them credit for not being left out of a great information network. Thank you LEO guys.

  • DenverDude April 7, 2017, 9:10 am

    I find the tact and direction of the lawyer ridiculous. A lot of “mays”in those statements. So, first of all I agree with the general responses. It’s PUBLIC, social, media. Why should law enforcement be unable to leverage PUBLIC information?
    That’s the definition of public, open to anyone, no restrictions. If people don’t want the information publicly available then don’t pay it publicly. Restrict access to the group or your profile or don’t post it. I find it a true contradiction that a potential employer can deny employment barf on social media content but it’s supposedly a bad practice for law enforcement to use it to identify potentially hostile situations. In this case it’s not the collection of the information it’s how they act on it. For the topics they chose, the dose of the equation that the author doesn’t discuss, and why monitoring is highly relevant is many of those demonstrations draw civil unrest. It may not be by the organized group but by the opposition. That makes it a local LE issue and better to be prepared, at least on notice, than caught off guard and have to scramble leaving citizens in unnecessary or extended jeopardy. The police should have stood their ground with that exact argument. I am concerned with all levels of LE overstepping their bounds but I don’t see this as such. If I haven’t repeated it enough, it’s a public forum.

    • Mahatma Muhjesbude April 7, 2017, 11:07 am

      You’re absolutely right, Denver Dude. Why shouldn’t police have every right to search EVERY public venue? And according to your sycophantic romance with Statist overreach, what, then, is wrong with police casually coming up to you to smell your breath for alcohol or your clothes for the odor of Cannabis so that they can then get the New type of warrant allowed just based on the experienced ‘expertise’ of occupation of the cop and proceed to do an early am flashbang no-knock on your home???

      If you can’t figure it out, then let me know, I’ll ‘splain it to ya! Rocky mountain high to ya, brohime!

      • Torn April 8, 2017, 3:50 pm

        That \”expertise\” happens all the time, like every time someone is contacted by an Officer! If you smell of Alcohol or Cannabis of course your going to be questioned and probably tested. Rightly so.

      • loupgarous May 2, 2017, 2:20 pm

        I was a police officer. Let me sort you out on that “supposed exercise” thing. I was deemed an “expert observer”, which means I was trained to confine my observations in court, sworn affidavits and my police reports to things I’d actually seen, not to conjectures about what might have taken place out if my sight or hearsay from others.

        Your post above falls far below those standards, but just to say – I WANT law enforcement to be able to use the apparent scent of alcohol or cannabis as foundation for probable cause to perform a sobriety test, ask a driver to take a Breathalyzer test, or escort an obviously impaired driver to the nearest emergency room for a blood alcohol test. That’s what you sign on for when you get a driver’s licence.

        Compared to the wide-open spaces of the air (and FAA can subject you to much more intrusive testing if you’re suspected of controlling an aircraft while impaired in any way) our roads are very dangerous – drivers impaired by drugs, legal or illegal, contribute to that greater danger. So what’s your point? That police officers can use the evidence of their senses to decide whether or not they have probable cause to investigate for a violation of the law? Get used to it, that’s the way it is, and there’s no good reason to change it.

  • Bob S April 7, 2017, 8:14 am

    What’s the difference between this and routine patrolling and observing from a police vehicle? A crime is still a crime regardless of how observed,

    • Mahatma Muhjesbude April 7, 2017, 12:57 pm

      The difference, Bobby boy, is the article said ‘monitoring Peaceful Protestors’. You know, like NO FUCKING probable cause type of ‘difference’? They were NOT commiting any crime at the time of the illegal, unwarranted, police surveillance/evesdropping! This cops were doing illegal random surveillance ‘fishing’.

      This Staci Sheriffs department decided they don’t like this particular group and instead of doing what they are supposed to do like patrolling the streets and ACTIVE high crime areas where tax payers are always in need of extra police coverage and police constantly complain they don’t have enough manpower or resources…
      THESE COPS WERE TOO BUSY MONITORING SOCIAL MEDIA AND PROBABLY GETTING OFF ON SOFT PORN SELFIES?

      That’s the HUGE difference. Because in this day and age, virtually Every type of human behavior, including the static non dynamic modes, can be subjectively interpolated into a ‘suspicion’ being ‘reasonable’ only because it is manifested by a so-called ‘sworn’ and trained peace officer, and therefore construed as probable cause for further rights violating detainment and 4/A privacy violating investigations.

      So if you say ‘what’s the difference between observing a crime from a police vehicle on patrol, that ‘difference’ becomes subject to ‘interpretation’ as it is carried further into a person(s) personal, private lives. Because, in your thinking, would it be then okay for a police vehicle on patrol in a town to sit atop a hillside and use high powered binoculars to observe what people are doing in their privacy fenced in back yards on their porches not ‘viewable’ from the regular street patrol vehicles??? How would you like that, Bobby Boy? Knowing that the local local Constabulary can sit a mile away and ‘routinely’ patrol and view you and your lovey-dovey’s most private intimate smooching under the moonlight and etc.so romantically..on the lounge on your private back of the house deck?

      Then of course, ‘what’s the difference between’ then sending a little drone over with a chem-analysis ‘sniffing’ device’ on it to just to find out if what you happen to be smoking is ‘legal’? But maybe they’ll ‘see’ with their NVD/wall penetrating radar equipped drones something else that might ‘interest’ them enough for an asset forfeiture complicit enough judge to okay the midnight flash bang no-knock raid to blow you and your wife’s naked asses out of bed so they can get a cheap thrill bonus out of their Nazi style ‘serving and protecting’???

      Because if you throw in patently unconstitutional statutes, Fiat mandates, administrative regulations with criminal penalties for disobedience, and other Totalitarian legislated laws by states and Federal government and you have an existentialism of a total Criminal Citizenry. (See George T. Will’s article on this) Because EVERYONE, sooner or later, even including all you ‘holier-than-thou’ moral absolutists, and your families, at some point in time, either IS or Becomes a criminal ubject to State or Federal prosecution according to the unimaginable abundance and coverage of illegal laws making virtually every human behavior potentially a criminal act. (which is how, by the way, they’ll eventually passively disarm us all)

      Today This Police State situation is so egregious and threatening to our Egalitarian principles that the practice itself, of government agents and LEO’s are criminal in essence, due to ancillary laws which directly prohibit anti-constitutional actions, like 18USCC241-242, et al. And some other remedies to the growing police state that complicit judges and prosecutors conveniently bypass and ignore.

      So the less you constrain police, the More they will potentially violate your rights and cause more damage to the social fabric of liberty in America. It’s an historic slippery slope that never changes. It becomes a matter of who polices the Police. And that job ultimatelybelongs to We The People. And we are not doing our job!

      We must always err on the side of Freedom, rather than the contrived agenda based specious notion of ‘public safety’ or even national security, for that matter. If you want to continue to live in a free country there can be no compromise, or equivocations with Freedom. Period. Everything else takes a back seat.

      Otherwise the Authoritarian power elite mentality will thrive and dominate. Using the police as their force multiplier, instead of what they were designed for, to help citizens in need of protection. And your freedom will eventually completely erode. It’s the nature of the ‘civilized’ beast.

      And we are contributing the problem by allowing police to joing the Federal SPY game and Not do their jobs either–Which they can’t do if they’re too busy doing 70 thousand unnecessary and dangerous SWAT raids a year sniffing out Pot smokers so they can seize their assets and continue to feed the beast of Police State enforcers for the purpose of eventual Population Slavery through fear and mind control.

      Does that explain it simply enough for you Bob S.?

      So I agree 100% with the point this article makes.

      But if that doesn’t explain it clear enough for you and a couple other liberty-retards commenting here, consider a couple other very recent developments that most people don’t have a clue about until it’s too late because people like you and them didn’t launch a Pro-Libertate campaign against these type of Police State practices when the first signs occurred.

      Just this week in Florida a small business entrepreneur, Chris Barnes, the owner of Solventtrap tactical, became the SECOND Solvent trap company and ATF casualty of 2nd/A oppression after SD tactical last month, and also got home invaded by jack booted agents and all his business files and computers seized and shut down and even home invaded his private residence!
      This happened because there wasn’t a huge outrage descending upon people’s legislators or in the media about the ATF pretending they were kings and whimsically changing NFA regulations to suit their agenda creating victims in the process!

      And, conversely, the other soon to be major privacy intrusion is a business company by the name of Patriot One Radar that the totalitarian government supports and sponsors, will now change the face of ALL CONCEALED CARRY INTEGRATIONS with a simple personal privacy invasion by technical means. It was originally called electronic ‘Frisk at Distance’ equipment around 15 years ago when I first spotted it at a national police trade show. But now, under a specious moniker of ‘public safety’ when its true purpose is to identify and surreptitiously catalogue ALL inhabitants in possession of firearms. And catalogue them in a Utah based Cloud bank with their biomentric and facial recognition cross-references for…future Hunger Games’ agendas!
      We had a preview of this one with the egregious insult to our most basic privacy, the cold rape and pillaging of our personal private body parts at Airports backed up by TSA DHS support.

      But again, we failed to protest the Hitlarian violations of the TSA, so now, why not allow them to take the next logical totalitarian leap and scan EVERBODY Anywhere in public at any time…ALL THE TIME!!! In other words, kiss the notion that nobody knows you’re carrying, BYE BYE, American Pie!

      And don’t forget, if we continue to have ‘Selective’ rights and liberty violations like some of you have here in your comments, and/or allow this kind of Police State intrusion to continue. It definitely will. This constant universal frisking is being implemented as of this writing and it will include frisking for other physical-materials, as well, as it develops. This technology will also integrate with biometric facial identification scanning, and local NVD camera and shotspotter (and eventually voice identification) technology already implemented and growing especially in the larger East and West coast cities. After all, according to some of the future self created slaves commenting here, how can it be ‘evesdropping’ when its in a public place, even if the equipment is so sensitive and focused that it can hear you whisper in a family member’s ear as you sit in a crowded eatery your neighborhood MacDonalds?

      And sooner, rather than later, they’ll get to your ass as well.

      • Torn April 8, 2017, 3:51 pm

        What Liberal professor infected you?

      • KP April 12, 2017, 12:33 am

        Yo, break your Prozac IN HALF next time before you post.

      • 97bravo20 June 2, 2017, 8:28 am

        To Mahatma Muhjesbude,
        I’d say you just gave law enforcement probable cause. Your paranoid, disjointed ramblings are indicative of some sort of substance abuse AND you posted them on a PUBLIC forum. No need to use “high powered binoculars to spy inside your fenced backyard”. Just kidding (the cameras are in your walls) .Perhaps if you were less condescending in your posts people might take you seriously.

  • Tj April 7, 2017, 8:03 am

    Well stupid is as stupid does. Like most criminals I have had to deal with in LEO work they have the right to remain silent but not the ability.
    Face book and other social medias have been a great law enforcement tool. If your posting on them you are in the public arena.. IT”S NOT SPYING It’s like hiding in plain view.
    Tj

    • DenverDude April 7, 2017, 8:49 am

      I wish I had a like button.

  • David April 7, 2017, 4:23 am

    Public information and activity in public is NOT spying. You don’t want a problem? Don’t break the law! Moron.

  • Joe Thomas April 3, 2017, 12:11 pm

    If you are dumb enough to post it, it can be used against you. It is not spying if it is on asocial media. You put it there so it can be seen. That is why I do not use it. Also my ego is healthy enough that I do not have to show off for other people.

  • judgecrater April 3, 2017, 8:43 am

    Looking at public media is not spying.

  • T-90 April 1, 2017, 7:11 am

    i don’t see this as spying, since anything you post on social media is pretty much public and you should be aware of that fact when posting. if they were monitoring private messages or something, that would be different, but the NSA, CIA and FBI already do that

  • Tommy Barrios March 31, 2017, 12:28 pm

    LEO’s should be using every tool at their disposal to keep an eye on the Ghetto Thug Trash, the Murdering Muslims, Ghetto Gangs, and the Communist Progressive Libtard Demoncrats!
    AND I HELPED 😉

  • gary March 31, 2017, 11:49 am

    how is it spying if these idiots post every damn thing they do in the day on these social media sites. They are there for everyone to see. This is not spying, it is these idiots own vane personality that is shining thru!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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