On June 21, 2018, the ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department, seeking to force the Chicago Police Department to turn over documents related to their use of social media monitoring software. The ACLU sought these public records through the Freedom of Information Act, and after months of promising documents were forthcoming, the Chicago Police Department failed to provide any documents and stopped responding to the request.

What is social media monitoring software?

Social media monitoring software can be purchased by law enforcement agencies and used to covertly monitor, collect, and analyze anyone’s social media activity and data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. As the demand for this technology continues to grow, an increasing number of products are becoming available. Software and products used by law enforcement departments around the country include: Media Sonar, Snaptrends, DigitalStakeout, Dunami, Meltwater, Babel Street, LexisNexis Social Media Monitor, XI Social Discovery, Geofeedia, Dataminr, and SocioSpyder.

This monitoring software’s most basic function is automated keyword and hashtag searches. Any social media post that contains specified keywords and hashtags gets flagged and sent to an officer, often in the form of a real time alert. Keywords can include the names of specific organizations, events, suspects, and persons of interest that law enforcement seeks to monitor.

What’s wrong with the police looking at social media activity?

As many Chicago residents know, the Chicago Police have a very troubling history when it comes to illegal surveillance. And as new technology has progressed, more powerful monitoring tools supplement the CPD’s extensive camera and other information-collecting systems to enable the City to surveil its citizens with a new scope, speed, and level of secrecy unmatched in Chicago’s history.  

Social media monitoring software provides something much more sophisticated than the kind of search results most people get. It can use complex algorithms to find and collect data scattered over the internet, then reorganize that information into something much more revealing, or speculative. It can figure out people’s relationships across networks and over time; it can monitor protests and identify political influencers; and it can geographically track people in real-time. It is marketed as a predictor of future behavior and, by its very nature, allows law enforcement to monitor large numbers of innocent people without any evidence of wrongdoing.

There are several potential consequences of such large-scale surveillance, including the silencing of voices and the use of this technology to target dissenters. In fact, in 2016 the ACLU of Northern California obtained Geofeedia marketing materials labeling activists and unions as “overt threats.” Marketing materials for Media Sonar similarly encouraged police to monitor hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed, #PoliceBrutality, and #ItsTimeforChange.

The freedom to express your opinion without fear of punishment from the government is a core feature of our democracy. The government should not be secretly using this technology as a tool to spy on people because they voice an opinion the government doesn’t like. 

Are the Chicago Police using this technology?

The Chicago Police Department has refused to tell us. However, we know a few things:

  • The Chicago Police Department purchased the Geofeedia software from 2014 to 2016, and purchased another company’s social media surveillance software in 2016, totaling over $135,000.
  • The Chicago Police Department appears to no longer use Geofeedia. After the ACLU of Northern California reported its findings to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, the social media sites cut off Geofeedia’s access to their users’ data.
  • Our other FOIA requests have revealed that, on January 20, 2017, the Chicago Police Department was monitoring social media to track protests and gatherings occurring that day in Chicago related to President Trump’s inauguration.

What we don’t know:

  • Are the Chicago Police still using this powerful and invasive technology?
  • If so, what companies are they using now that Geofeedia has been blocked, and what capabilities do they provide?
  • How are they training officers to monitor social media?
  • What policies do they have in place to protect privacy and free speech rights? 
  • Which groups and hashtags are they watching? 
  • What do they do with the data they access?

At a minimum, Chicagoans deserve to know what digital surveillance tools are being used and the extent of their use, and the FOIA requests filed by the ACLU of Illinois sought just that. The Chicago Police Department has never provided any public notice, solicited community input, or sought legislative approval to use social media monitoring software. Most people do not want or expect the government to track them on social media, and the public should have the opportunity to provide input on if, when, and how these surveillance tools are used. The only way for us to have that conversation is for the City to start being transparent about what it is doing.