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.”