SEATTLE (Oct. 14, 2016) – The Seattle Police Department secretly purchased software allowing police to monitor social media posts in real time and used it for two years with no notice or oversight.
According to information gleaned from documents obtained through a public record requests by independent journalist Aaron Cantú and shared with The Stranger, the Seattle Police Department bought the social media tracking software in October 2014 from Geofeedia for $14,125. The software allows officers to monitor an individuals social media posts, tell where the person posted from and what they said. It can also show hundreds of tweets and Instagram posts from others in the vicinity and store it all in a massive database. Some have dubbed it “Tweetdeck for cops.”
According to The Stranger, the police department violated Seattle law when they bought the software with no notice or approval.
“The secret purchase of the Geofeedia software violated a Seattle law requiring a city official outside of the police department to be notified of such acquisitions, the SPD admitted this week in response to questions from The Stranger. The secret use of the software may have also violated the city’s 2013 surveillance ordinance, which requires ‘any City department intending to acquire surveillance equipment’ to ‘obtain City Council approval.'”
SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey later claimed he thought the decision to use Geofeedia without informing the city council did not violate the city’s surveillance ordinance because the it only applies to hardware, not software.
Geofeedia pitches its software to police departments as a tool to “perpetually monitor” social media. According to The Stranger, “a pamphlet from the company suggested the SPD could use its product for ‘targeted surveillance,’ and other promotional materials emphasized the software’s capabilities for tracking large events, including ‘protests,’ sports games, and natural disasters.”
Police say they discontinued using the software after its existence became public. They also claim they never used it for “targeted” surveillance.
Seattle isn’t alone in its use of Geofeedia software. Last month, the ACLU of Northern California revealed at least 13 police departments in the state used the tracking software to monitor protestors. According to the ACLU, police in San Jose utilized the tools to monitor South Asian, Muslim and Sikh activists.
It remains unclear how many police departments across the U.S. use Geofeedia, or similar social media tracking software. The Chicago Tribune reported the company said it had more than 500 customers, including media, corporate operations, marketing and organizations in the public sector. Police in Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, Dallas and Aurora Ill. reportedly all used Geofeedia services.
In response to the ACLU of Northern California allegations, Twitter suspended Geofeedia’s commercial access to its data. Facebook and Instagram have also severed ties with the company, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The whole incident underscores the importance of transparency, and the difficulty of achieving it. Even with laws in place limiting police activities, they will push the law to its limits and, as we see in Seattle, walk right across that line.
It’s imperative that activists and journalists constantly monitor the activities of local police departments. After all, they’re monitoring us.