Is LAPD right to collect social media info from civilians?
- An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that the Los Angeles Police Department authorized its police officers to use Media Sonar and Palantir to engage in “extensive surveillance” of social media accounts with little guidance according to the department’s 2015 Social Media User Guide.
- After the Brennan Center sued LAPD, 6,000 pages of documents were released on LAPD’s policies asking for detainee’s social and email accounts. Civilians do have the freedom to not respond, but many may not feel able to keep that information private under an officer’s watch.
- The LAPD monitored several keywords on social media including #BLMLA, #SayHerName, #f**kdonaldtrump (asterisks added), and others relating to major protests.
- In December and January of 2020, the Brennan Center filed public record requests from Los Angeles along with Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC Police Department.
The policy from the LAPD is very open: once they have people's social media information, officers can dig into their online presence without supervisory permission or justification. While it is optional to offer social media information to the police, officers are told the Field Interview Report cards include social media accounts, which would be checked 'as a basis for investigations, arrested and prosecutors.' Given these instructions, police are likely to push for all available information, regardless of whether a person is suspected of a crime, so their superiors don't reprimand them.
The LAPD's policy opens the doors for widespread online surveillance and monitoring of American citizens violating our constitutional and civil liberties. The information collected by officers is placed into a database where it can be collected and searched by anyone with access. It's a data and intelligence gathering project of the kind that would be used against an enemy foreign government, not to spy on Americans.
The LAPD has already come under scrutiny in recent years for profiling and targeting communities of color. There are also concerns about police placing people in databases incorrectly. It's a dangerous world if an officer can stop you on a pretext when you are not doing anything illegal, check your Twitter, for instance, and then proceed to label you as a political dissident or gang member without your knowledge. For community activists, whether you are a member of the Proud Boys or Black Lives Matter, any LAPD surveillance and data collection efforts are concerning.
While the Los Angeles Police Department's recent practice of obtaining civilians' social media information has made some uneasy, it has legitimate reasons for doing so. The main goal is obviously to prevent crime and potentially save lives, even if that raises red flags for users. Despite the Brennan Center for Justice arguing against the invasive nature of the LAPD investigating citizens online, there is a definitive need for it now. Social media has replaced many real-world interactions, especially with the pandemic forcing some live events to be held virtually. It has also provided a place for criminals to communicate. For the police to protect their communities, it has now become necessary to address the online world to monitor potential crime.
However, having an online presence is entirely optional, and users control the content they post and the people with whom they interact. Unless they are vigilant about privacy settings, their accounts are essentially public information. Those opposing the controversial approach have also argued that the LAPD has specifically investigated activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. Yet, it is important to consider that both social justice groups and the LAPD have similar goals at the end of the day: to improve and save lives. Also, law enforcement officials have successfully used this approach to locate offenders from all political backgrounds, such as those involved in the US Capitol riot.
Following 9/11, Americans found themselves in a similar situation regarding the Patriot Act and government surveillance. Of course, everyone wants their privacy, but consider which is ultimately worse: feeling slightly uncomfortable about it or a devastating act of violence that could be prevented?