Police are spending millions of dollars to monitor the social media of protesters and suspects

Police are spending millions of dollars to monitor the social media of protesters and suspectsBy Elizabeth Dwoskin

Nov 18 2016


Hundreds of local police departments across the United States have collectively spent about $4.75 million on software tools that can monitor the locations of activists at protests or social media hashtags used by suspects, according to new research.

The research, by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization focusing on criminal justice issues, aims to take a comprehensive look at the fast-growing phenomenon of social media-monitoring by law enforcement. Using public records, the Brennan Center tracked spending by 151 local law enforcement agencies that have contracted with start-ups that siphon data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites, largely out of the public eye.

“The numbers we have are massively understated,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the organization’s liberty and national security program, pointing out that agencies don’t always have any obligation to report their use of the software. “But it gives an indication of a phenomenon that is growing rapidly and flying under the radar.”

Top spenders were the City of Los Angeles, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the County of Sacramento, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the County of Macomb, which is a large county in Michigan. Each spent roughly $70,000 over the past three years, Brennan found.

In recent years, a crop of start-ups — with names like Geofeedia, SnapTrends and Dataminr — has sprung up to analyze data posted publicly on popular social media sites. These start-ups buy information from the social sites and analyze the data to look for trends or monitor events taking place at a certain location. Corporations buy the analysis, along with nonprofits, financial firms and, increasingly, law enforcement. The law enforcement trend has exploded in the past two years, Patel said.

Law enforcement officials say the tools can be useful because sometimes people who commit crimes brag about them on social media. Witnesses also may offer up clues, such as posting that they heard gunshots or posting video of events.