LittleSis is partnering with MuckRock to investigate how police across the country are monitoring, tracking, and archiving public social media posts. To plug into our work, follow this link to file a freedom of information request using MuckRock’s platform.
In keeping with our mission to monitor and track the powers that be, we at LittleSis turned the surveillance gaze back onto the local forces monitoring social media. We not only dug into the corporate profiles of some of the companies police contract to snoop on your Tweets and Facebook rants, we also filed freedom of information requests to twenty police departments across the country to find out how, when, and why they monitor social media.
Before we started receiving documents from the police, we probed the power behind these eight firms to unravel the social-media-monitoring complex; you can peruse our list, completed using publicly available information, to learn more about each company. However, one particularly well-connected firm that we believe is worth highlighting here is ZeroFOX, which actively monitored prominent Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore and labeled some of them, including former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson, “threat actors.”
The company reached out to Baltimore officials first, offering it services pro-bono, which ZeroFOX executives painted as a selfless gesture of civic responsibility. But city officials may have been especially receptive to ZeroFOX’s pitch because of the powerful names standing behind it. The company’s leadership includes former NSA Director Mike McConnell, who is the f at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Robert Rodriguez, who has ties to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and a security firm started by top Bush-era security official Michael Chertoff.
In our information requests to police, we asked for contracts with the social media monitoring companies listed above, records of correspondence with these companies, documents containing social media monitoring policy, all records of archived social media postings, and more. We sent them out on January 28. As of May 17, we have received documents from five departments, including Austin, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Philadelphia police.
All of the contracts we’ve received so far mention a company called Geofeedia. Previous reports indicate that Geofeedia also has contracts with Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Because the company was such a common thread, we decided to focus our reporting on Geofeedia, which appears to be the hardest hustler in the social media surveillance game.
Geofeedia’s business grows “7-fold” between 2014 and 2015
Started in 2011 by Phil Harris, a businessperson with stints at Priceline and Match.com, Geofeedia allows users to target a geographic area on their computer and scoop up the public social media posts of everybody within the target range. The posts are harvested from the companies with which Geofeedia has patents, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Yik Yak, Seno-Weibo, and others. In addition to targeting a geographical region, users can also use Geofeedia to search social media posts based on people and keywords.
In an interview published on April 20, Harris claimed that his company invented “social media intelligence,” and that in the near future Geofeedia would continue to grow “extremely rapidly.” A year earlier, Harris said the company had 500 paying customers and had grown 7-fold since 2014. Its clients not only include law enforcement, but also news organizations like CNN, BBC, Fox and Mashable, as well as companies interested in gauging customers’ “brand experience” in real time.
Geofeedia is financed by the venture capital firms Silversmith Capital Partners and Hyde Park Venture Partners. Silversmith was launched in 2015 by alumni of Bain Capital, Bain Company and Spectrum Equity, while Hyde Park shares some alumni of the digital marketing company Salesforce.com with Geofeedia. In April 2016, The Intercept’s Lee Fang revealed that Geofeedia also received startup funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and had a contract with the FBI.
In addition to touting its utility for for marketers as well emergency first responders, Harris also said in a radio interview that Geofeedia specialized in monitoring social movements like the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests in Greece. Company representatives also suggested that police testing out Geofeedia software use it to monitor protests in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014. Another representative from the company confirmed to LittleSis that the software was used in 2014 and 2015 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, whose owner, Canada-based Triple Five Group, contracts with Geofeedia.
Police departments using Geofeedia to monitor social media
At press time we possessed dozens of documents from five police departments, and as more documents come in, we’ll run stories about what we receive. Here’s what we have so far:
Austin Police Department
We obtained three files from the Austin Police Department, including a copy of a contract between Geofeedia and APD, several emails between the company and the police department, and document acknowledging a pilot program in July 2014.
On June 24, 2015, the Austin PD signed a $9,500 contract with Geofeedia that gave an unlimited number of user licenses to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center. The contract, which spanned from June 24 to March 31, 2016, also included “ongoing priority support, one user-training session per month,” and unlimited alerts. It also included up to 200,000 of unspecified “items” of data a month. It is not known whether APD is pursuing a new contract with the firm.
Emails between Austin’s Financial Services Department and the Police Department also indicate that two other social media monitoring companies are registered vendors with the city. These include Motorola-partnered Intrado, which makes software that uses a person’s social media postings (among many other things) to assign a threat-level to them, and Brightplanet, which specializes in deep web data mining. Neither Intrado nor Brightplanet have ever signed contracts with the city of Austin, according to city emails.
Oakland Police Department
LittleSis received an invoice from 10/22/14 from the Oakland Police Department detailing a purchase from Geofeedia. It yields few details: the invoice was for a $8,500 annual subscription for “Geofeedia ‘Cloud’ based Social Media Platform.”
When we followed up, Oakland PD did not tell us whether or not it renewed its contract with Geofeedia after October 2015, but informed us that they were searching for more documents pertaining to our request.
San Diego Police Department
San Diego PD gave us a purchase order as well as an order form and a document indicating its justification for the purchase. The department bought an annual subscription for $18,000 that kicked in on July 1, 2015 and allows users to access “up to five real-time streams” that had the ability to track “influencers” — people on social media with particularly large followers and influence — and could translate social media postings from Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, and Sina Weibo.
In a “Business Case Concept” document, Assistant Police Chief Al Guaderrama acknowledges that SDPD has used information culled from social media sources “in conjunction with traditional investigative techniques,” and that Geofeedia would allow police to aggregate social media in a more effective way:
Analysts and investigators currently use free and basic tools similar to Geofeedia. However, these tools do not permit data collection, aggregation, downloading for analysis, or alerts. Additionally, limited access to the type of social media platforms and postings that are available only allow basic analysis of social media activities.
The document also says $25,000 was allocated to the police department for the Geofeedia purchase, although the subscription only cost the department $18,000. It also seems to indicate that a renewed Geofeedia subscription will be factored into the department’s budget in the future:
Annual renewal costs will be included in the Department’s Operating Budget.
San Jose Police Department
From the San Jose Police Department we obtained a purchase order form for Geofeedia services, a bidding contract, several emails between the police department and the office of the city management (all here), an investment proposal from the police department, and over one hundred pages of email between the police department, city officials, representatives from three social media monitoring firms, including Geofeedia.
The contract includes an annual subscription to Geofeedia services from 9/15/15 through 9/14/16 for the department’s special investigations unit. The services purchased are capable of storing up to 500,000 social media posts a month, gathered from a max search radius of 15 kilometers that gathers posts from Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, Sina, Weibo, and VK.
The investment proposal, which states that SJPD investigators use Geofeedia software “almost daily,” reveals a number of startling ways San Jose police have used Geofeedia for noncriminal matters.
SJPD first put the software to use when protesters staged a die-in during a speech given by Indian Prime Minister Narendi Modi in September 2015, monitoring the social media postings of protesters to receive “real time updates on potential threats.” In another instance, SJPD used Geofeedia to manage its public image, after coming across a YouTube video revealing a police “use of force situation” against a citizen. The excerpt is worth quoting in its entirety:
In yet another example, on December 9, 2015, an SIU officer noticed someone posted a use of force situation on YouTube. No one from the Department was aware of the posting, which had a potential for unfavorable media scrutiny. Internal Affairs and the Media Relations Unit were immediately notified as was the Chief’s Office. Early warning notifications like this can assist the Department with messaging and transparency.
From the cache of emails we received, we learned that two other social media monitoring firms unsuccessfully vied for a contract with SJPD in 2015. These include LifeRaft and Media Sonar Technologies, which both specialize in location-based social media tracking software. Additionally, internal emails also indicate that Geofeedia software was used during Super Bowl 50 by SJPD’s “covert response unit.”
Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and the Santa Clara Police Department
In an email obtained from the San Jose Police Department and dated 9/1/2015, SJPD Lieutenant Michael Sullivan says that the Santa Clara Police Department had been using Geofeedia Services on loan from the local Northern California fusion center:
Philadelphia Police Department
From the Philadelphia Police Department we obtained a purchase order, a standard operating procedure for the department’s Social Media Investigative Support Team, and a dozen pages explaining why most of our open records request could not be fulfilled (all here).
PPD purchased an annual subscription from Geofeedia for $26,000 in February 2015, and the department told LittleSis it has not renewed the contract. Like Austin, PPD’s subscription included an unlimited number of user licenses for its local fusion center, the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.
The police department’s standard operating procedure for social media, which appears to have been issued by the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, contains more information on how when Philadelphia surveil social media. For example, police can use social media to produce “assessment reports” about First Amendment protected activities.
Police also store information from social media in the form of screenshots, printouts of chat logs, and copies of URLs, and are expected to stay vigilant on social media even when they’re off the clock. But much still is left unsaid: Nearly 3 pages describing how police can mine public social media posts for intelligence was blacked out.
Because social media incites within us a compulsion to share our thoughts, even potentially illegal ones, law enforcement sees it as a tool to preempt behavior that appears threatening to the status quo.
LittleSis is still waiting for documents from 16 other police departments, including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, DC (Metropolitan Police), Minneapolis, Oakland (more), Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Seattle, and St. Louis. Both Dallas and St. Louis have together demanded hundreds of dollars for documents, while Baltimore rejected our request and Chicago was unhelpful.
There’s a wealth of information out there that we can access, but getting it has to be a broad effort that includes everybody, including you. To that end, MuckRock is launching a crowdfunded, crowdsourced campaign to reveal how police across the country are using social media to monitor people and the events they attend.
Interested in following up on a request we’ve sent out, or filing a brand new one to a department we’ve yet to contact? Follow this link and file a request. You can use the template we used, or you can create your own.
The Boston Police Department also contracts with Geofeedia, according to publicly available records. The police department submitted a $6,700 check to the company on January 26, 2016. The records were surfaced and posted on privacysos.org by Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU – Massachusetts.