NYPD Social Media Monitoring Policy Allows For Use Of Aliases, Has Exceptions For Terrorist Activity

from the overall:-not-terrible,-would-hesitantly-recommend dept

Recently, in an article discussing the arrest of a Brooklyn teenager for emoji-riddled “terroristic threats” (who is now free after the grand jury declined to return charges), I wondered just how “routine” the NYPD’s stated “routine Facebook monitoring” was. Now, thanks to a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request by Chase Pashkowick of MuckRock, we have at least a partial answer.

The policy [pdf link] — Use of Social Networks for Investigative Purposes — is still in force, which makes it somewhat of a miracle the intensely secretive NYPD released it at all. The policy states that the NYPD can freely access any information available publicly — i.e., from any service not requiring a login or email account to view content.

It also allows officers and investigators to dig even deeper by utilizing aliases. Or as MuckRock puts it, the NYPD has a license for catfishing.

The operations order seeks “to instill the proper balance between the investigative potential of social network sites and privacy expectations.” There is no prior authorization required to review publicly accessible information, such as party announcements blasted across Facebook or Twitter. But NYPD officers must seek approval before logging into social networks using any online identity other than their own.

Such requests for an online alias must pass two levels of supervisory, letterheaded scrutiny. This includes a supervisor’s official sign-off on the username itself as well as the proposed profile photo, although the policy does not parse acceptable from forbidden photograph sources.

There are nine steps officers must follow if they wish to utilize an alias.

2. Evaluate request to determine whether an online alias would serve an investigative purpose, and if so, prepare Typed Letterhead requesting an online alias to bureau chief/deputy commissioner concerned.

3. Include on Typed Letterhead:

a. Purpose for the request type of investigation, etc.)
b. Tax registry number of requesting member
c. Username (online alias)
d. Identifiers and pedigree to be utilized for the online alias, such as email address, username and date of birth.
(1) Do not include password(s) for online alias and ensure password(s) are secured at all times.
e. Indicate whether there is a need to requisition a Department laptop with aircard.

4. Review photograph to be used in conjunction with online alias, if applicable.

a. Consider the purpose for which the photograph is being used and the source of the photograph.
b. Attach a copy of the approved photograph and indicate on Typed Letterhead how photograph was obtained.

5. Forward request to commanding officer for review.

6. Review request(s) and consider the purpose and whether granting approval would serve an investigative purpose.

7. Endorse request(s) indicating within one day of original request and if APPROVED, immediately forward approval to bureau chief/deputy commissioner concerned, through channels, for informational purposes.

8. File copies of requests in command.

9. Maintain record of online alias in case records management systems or appropriate Department records.

10. Maintain folder for each APPROVED online alias.

a. Designate an administrator for the online alias.

All in all, a pretty tightly controlled system… unless terrorism is afoot, at which point the rules loosen up a bit.

11. Immediately contact Intelligence Division, Operations Desk supervisor and provide details regarding proposed investigation.

12. Determine if investigation should be conducted by the Intelligence Division and proceed accordingly.

13. Notify requesting supervisor to proceed with investigation if it has been determined that the investigation will not be conducted by the Intelligence Division.

14. Comply with steps 2 through 10 as appropriate, if investigation will not be conducted by the Intelligence Division.

It would appear that the Intelligence Division can take this alias request and run with it, most likely subject to a minimum of oversight. If they turn it down, it’s back to the previous page of rules and the stricter controls.

If there are exigent circumstances (a handy term of art that is often deployed to assure exceptions swallow rules), all an officer needs to do is “confer” with the Intelligence Division and follow its instructions. If it’s not both “exigent” and “terrorist-related,” then it’s back to the nine-step approval process.

The policy also includes sensible rules for officers using NYPD internet connections and computers, including the admonition that every alias bears the risk of being exposed. To that end, investigators are instructed to use department laptops with aircards to help ensure an anonymous connection. They are also told to avoid using names and email addresses that can be traced back to the department, as well as to exercise the common sense Rules of the Internet: be wary of clicking links, delete spam rather than reading it, never open attachments unless you can verify who sent it, and avoid using home/public connections/computers to conduct police business.

The social media monitoring policy also pays lip service to the Handschu Agreement the department’s so-called “Demographics Unit” killed off in its pursuit of all things Muslim. The guidelines were meant to prevent the surveillance of non-criminal, politically-focused activity. The former CIA operative who headed the new surveillance unit managed to carve out large exceptions to this agreement on the way to placing several NYC mosques under round-the-clock watch. While it’s nice to see a hat tip in its direction, it’s a meaningless paragraph that only gives the document an air of First Amendment respect — and only to those who are unfamiliar with the NYPD’s neutering of this agreed-upon protection. Those inside the exception-to-all-rules Intelligence Division already know these words mean nothing. Most of those monitoring social media for anything terrorist-related know this as well.

But given the department’s not-so-secret affection for all things surveillance, the policy is surprisingly restrictive. Whether it’s actually followed to the letter is still an unanswered question.

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Comments on “NYPD Social Media Monitoring Policy Allows For Use Of Aliases, Has Exceptions For Terrorist Activity”

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8 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

gaping loophole

These rules apparently only apply to NYPD personnel who use Facebook and other sites while on “company time” — and not to any online activities cops might do from home in their time off work (a relative thing, since a cop is never completely “off duty”).

NYPD cops who get a multi-month paid vacation for excessive force (as in shooting and/or killing an unarmed person) will have plenty of time on their hands to do online investigative work, without any of the rules and red-tape that hamper their peers at the station.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: gaping loophole

In all fairness to cops, they deserve to have private lives where they can engage in the same things everyone else gets to engage in. But you have an excellent point, in that “on duty” is not really a good dividing line.

I would prefer that the language said something like “in the course of performing their duty” instead. That would cover cops working in their spare time.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because there has been this trend in law enforcement where they’ve convinced themselves that their purpose is to prevent crime rather than investigate it. To be able to do that requires that they spy on everyone to the greatest extent that they can.

I think this is a terrible notion that presents a very real threat to all citizens, but the cops are all gung-ho about it. Probably because it increases their power and funding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

total control so they can do whatever they want whenever they want with no whining citizens complaining in their ear.

They have that already mostly, save people are fed up and fighting back. Some quite violently. This is to combat people demanding police accountability for their corrupt actions. In a petty dictators mind people are there to be his playthings and nothing more.

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