Social media surveillance by law enforcement is a violation of rights, advocates say

Emma McGowan 5 Oct 2021

This method of surveillance is one of the latest law enforcement privacy violations of people of color in the U.S.

A recent investigation by the Brennan Center for Justice into the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) found that officers have been collecting social media handles of people that they stop — even if they are not being detained. The information is collected on “field interview cards” that include other biographical information, including name, date of birth, “gang/moniker,” Social Security number (which has since been removed), and email, as well as information about the stop. 

According to reporting by the Guardian, officers have been collecting social media information since 2015. The report found that the LAPD uses the details gathered in combination with social media keyword tracking technologies to “address a potential threat or incident before its occurrence.”

Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), views this method of surveillance as being the latest in a long line of law enforcement privacy violations of people of color in the United States.

“In law enforcement as it currently exists there is a great deal of surveillance of communities of color,” Schwartz tells Avast. “And this goes back to the lantern laws of the 1800s, where people of color had to walk around at night with a lantern so law enforcement could see their faces. This is just one more step in that evolution — there’s a new technology and law enforcement is going to use that for surveillance."

There is abundant evidence that the LAPD uses social media specifically to surveil Black and brown Angelenos more than people of other races or ethnicities. For example, the Brennan Center found that the department was using a private social media monitoring company, Geofeedia, to track hashtags related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as far back as 2016. They were not, however, tracking any far-right or white supremacists group, which were also active at the time. Additionally, LAPD stops Black drivers at higher rates than any other race or ethnicity and they are more likely to fill out field interview cards for Black and Latino Angelenos, according to the LA Times.

“We know painfully that the people who are subjected to police stop and frisks are people of color,” Schwartz says. “And so it’s going to be people of color, more than others, who are having their privacy invaded and their speech deferred.”

While technically not called “stop and frisk” — which has been deemed unconstitutional — these “field interviews” perform essentially the same function as the infamous policing tactic: instilling fear into communities of color while simultaneously collecting surveillance information. However, individuals who are stopped in this way are under no legal obligation to provide their social media information, according to Schwartz.

“Many people, when an officer says — having just thrown them against the hood of a car —‘What’s your social media handle?’ feel like they have no choice but to share their social handle,” he says. “As a matter of law, the individual detained does have a right to refuse to answer the question. But as a matter of what is practical during one of these dangerous and terrifying encounters, many people would be afraid to assert their rights to keep their private information to themselves.”

In other words, despite the fact that people are not legally obligated to provide this information, it’s up to each individual to decide what is safe for them in the moment. In the meantime, Schwartz says that the entire system of stop and frisk is “too broad” and needs some major changes.

“Stop and frisk is inflicted on far too many people, the vast majority of whom are completely innocent,” Schwartz says. “The people subjected to stop and frisk should not be treated as presumptive criminals who the government needs to keep tabs on indefinitely by monitoring their social media communications.  Our number one message here is we urge the LAPD to stop doing this; to take the box off of the stock card for social media handles. There just is no good reason — and many bad consequences — for LAPD collecting this information.”

Schwartz says that targeted “intrusive surveillance techniques might be appropriate” when law enforcement is suspicious that an individual is committing a crime and they have a warrant. For example, the EFF believes that it is appropriate for law enforcement to obtain a warrant to create a fake social media account in order to “friend” and surveil a target. 

“But when you have a drag net program, which is the stop and frisks, you’re sweeping up thousands and thousands of people who have done nothing wrong,” Schwartz says. “And they ought not be subjected to social media surveillance because a cop didn’t like the cut of their jib when they saw them on the sidewalk one day."

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