The LAPD Is Asking City Residents To Hand Over Social Media Account Info To Feed To Its Unsupervised Monitoring Software

from the badge-sporting-amateur-anglers dept

Documents obtained via public records requests by the Brennan Center reveal the Los Angeles Police Department has made social media part of its everyday business. The LAPD is wholly embracing the 21st century. This doesn't mean its public relations department is making the most of numerous platforms to address citizens' concerns and engage in more transparency.

No, it just means LAPD officers can be just as stalker-ish as disgruntled exes or future employers.

The Los Angeles Police Department authorizes its officers to engage in extensive surveillance of social media without internal monitoring of the nature or effectiveness of the searches, according to the results of a public records request filed by the Brennan Center. (h/t Michael Vario)

And beginning this year, the department is adding a new social media surveillance tool: Media Sonar, which can build detailed profiles on individuals and identify links between them. This acquisition increases opportunities for abuse by expanding officers’ ability to conduct wide-ranging social media surveillance.

The LAPD has been doing this for years, if its "2015 Social Media User Guide" [PDF] is any indication. At that point, the LAPD was already doing plenty of social media monitoring. The guide mentions things like oversight, seeking approval for certain forms of monitoring, and the possibility of First and Fourth Amendment violations.

However, it also mentions the use of fictitious personas to engage in undercover investigations and the use of fictitious personas to engage in fishing expeditions.

The use of a Fictitious Online Persona to engage in investigative activity. Fictitious Online Personas created for the purposes of identifying and examining trends and tactics, developing profiles, or conducting research does not constitute online undercover activity.

That doesn't trouble the LAPD. There are no rules for this. Long-term surveillance of people suspected of nothing utilizing fictitious accounts that might give officers access to non-public posts and messages is something the LAPD performs in an accountability vacuum, constitutional concerns be damned.

That document says no permission is needed and no oversight governs these activities. Other documents obtained by the Brennan Center confirm the LAPD's hands-off approach to long-term social media monitoring -- some which involves officers engaged in subterfuge indistinguishable from the "Online Undercover Activity" more closely governed by rules applying to ongoing investigations.

Despite endowing its officers with broad authority to surveil social media, the LAPD has done little to ensure these powers aren’t abused. According to a letter responding to our records request, it does “not track what (if anything) [its] employees monitor[]” on social media sites and “has not conducted any audits regarding the use of social media.”

Great. So we don't know how much surveillance unrelated to criminal investigations occurs under the LAPD's unwatchful, presumably-closed eye. We also don't know how many times officers have broken what few rules govern their online interactions and passive surveillance. We also don't know whether this always-on monitoring has had any impact on law enforcement activities, like providing new leads or evidence in other criminal cases. And even if it has, the unanswered question remains: why is the LAPD keeping an eye on people it doesn't have any reasonable suspicion are engaged in criminal activity?

Just as worrying is the paperwork filled out by beat cops during "field interviews," which encompass everything from speaking to crime witnesses/victims to whatever city residents the LAPD interacts with during its patrols. Not only are these cards used to keep the LAPD's extremely questionable gang database stocked with alleged gang members, but they encourage officers to ask for information they have no legal reason to demand -- like Social Security Numbers or, as is relevant here, "social media account(s)."

All of this information gets fed into the LAPD's databases and social media monitoring tools, like Media Sonar. It's all called "intelligence," even if it's little more than bait for social media fishing expeditions by cops with the time and the tech to waste on efforts that do little to reduce crime or contribute to ongoing investigations. And this seems to be a uniquely LA thing: the Brennan Center says its review of "field interview" cards (which covers 40 US cities at this point) has yet to uncover any other law enforcement agency seeking to collect information about people's social media accounts.

This doesn't mean no other police departments are trying to collect this information. It just means the LAPD feels this is an acceptable thing to ask people for during field interviews and its reliance on social media monitoring software to do its investigative work for it. The LAPD appears to be doing this simply because no one -- not department officials, internal oversight, external oversight, or judges at any level of the court system -- has told the PD it can't.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, lapd, social media, surviellance


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  1. identicon
    Crafty Coyote, 16 Sep 2021 @ 5:58am

    You need to know about what Fictitious Online Personas lookslike- if you're a single guy living in Los Angeles and you get a message from a potential girlfriend named "Emma Copp", just say no. Her profile might have her wearing the Sexy Police Officer Halloween costume and she might say she's into handcuffs and leather, but just say no.


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