By Alexandra Block, Director of Criminal Legal Systems and Policing Project

The Chicago Police Department shrouds in secrecy its use of surveillance technologies to monitor social media. This secrecy extends to powerful tools to scrape and analyze information obtained from people’s social media accounts. Mayor Brandon Johnson and incoming CPD Superintendent Larry Snelling should conduct a thorough and transparent accounting of the social media analysis technologies that CPD uses, including exploring who is using them, under what guidelines, and whether any of those technologies has a demonstrated community safety benefit.

In August 2020, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the creation of a new 20-member “task force” that would use technology and data analytics to monitor social media activity 24 hours a day. Her August 14, 2020 announcement followed several months of community outrage over the murder of George Floyd and a disproportionate, often violent response by CPD that the police justified by claiming that they were trying to deter looting or other criminal activity.  Mayor Lightfoot stated at the time that “over these past few months, social media platforms have repeatedly been used to organize large groups of people to engage in illegal activity.” She also claimed that “proactive monitoring will provide the crucial information our public safety agencies need in order to be aware of planned activity as early as possible and to enable them to respond quickly and appropriately.” Then-CPD Superintendent David Brown stated in a press conference that CPD had been monitoring social media for a while but that he hoped to expand the “capacity” of social media monitoring. How this program would work was not clear.

The ACLU of Illinois filed a Freedom of Information Act request in late August 2020 seeking information about CPD’s “expanded” social media monitoring plans. CPD failed to fully respond to the FOIA request, and ACLU of Illinois was compelled to file a lawsuit to obtain information about CPD’s new social media monitoring task force.  After extensive delays, including an order finding CPD in contempt of court for refusing to follow prior disclosure orders, CPD finally provided to us a copy of a previously-secret September 2020 policy, several training curricula, emails for the period August 1, 2020-October 1, 2020, contracts, and other related documents.

The documents establish the following information about the social media monitoring team that CPD established in 2020:

  • In September 2020, CPD created a Confidential Analytics Section (Unit 195) within its Counterterrorism Division of the Bureau of Counterterrorism.
  • Its founding directive is BCT Special Order 20-01.
  • The purpose of the Confidential Analytics Section is not limited to preventing alleged looting or addressing spontaneous gatherings of individuals organized over social media, but rather, it was organized to use social media for any “valid law enforcement purpose.”
  • The Confidential Analytics Section uses both “opensource” social media (i.e., searching information that is in the public domain) as well as covert or “undercover” tactics (i.e., accessing accounts that are only available to “friends” or that require private messaging).  For example, BCT Special Order 20-01 allows Confidential Analytics Section officers to create fake identities that do not belong to real people and are not identifiable as law enforcement accounts.
  • While officers are supposed to adhere to CPD’s non-discrimination and First Amendment policies during investigations, they are otherwise given broad latitude to investigate “the prevention of crime, ensuring the safety of the public, furthering officer safety, and homeland and national security…” S.O. 20-01 §V.I. 
  • CPD’s Confidential Matters Section is to audit the Confidential Analytics Section’s covert social media accounts annually. S.O. 20-01 §IX.A. There is no public information about whether these audits have taken place or what they showed.

BCT Special Order 20-01 gives the Confidential Analytics Section much broader latitude than is standard across other divisions of CPD. CPD’s standard social media directive, General Order G09-01-06 requires CPD members to “only use publicly available material or information that is posted in a publicly accessible format,” absent “a warrant, exigent circumstances, or prior authorization” from a supervisor with the rank of Chief or above permitting an undercover investigation. G09-01-06 §IV.C.4; IV.D.4. It is under this authority that CPD regularly monitors public Facebook and Twitter posts, for example, regarding planned parades, protests, demonstrations, neighborhood events, and other civic and political actions.

CPD’s directives do not require CPD to maintain or publicly report data on how many social media searches it conducts, whether those searches examine the data of individuals or organizations. The directives do not state whether or how CPD leaders monitor if Department personnel are adhering to CPD’s First Amendment policies – which prohibit targeting people and organizations for surveillance due to their political, religious or social viewpoints or associations – when they utilize social media for investigatory purposes.  As a result, the public has no way of knowing the answers to these questions.

What apps or technologies does CPD use to covertly monitor, collect and analyze individuals’ social media accounts or posts?  The answer again is unclear from the documents CPD produced in response to ACLU’s FOIA request, and in several instances attorneys for the City of Chicago could not answer questions about whether CPD had purchased technologies that were referenced in emails. Currently, CPD withholds from the City’s procurement database copies of contracts for technologies that it deems would reveal law enforcement investigative techniques and therefore, they claim, are exempt from Illinois FOIA.  This should change. Other police departments, such as San Francisco, publicly post a list of all the technologies they use to surveil their residents. Chicago should do the same so our residents know what types of technologies – funded by our taxpayer dollars – CPD officers use to track our online activities.

Who within CPD has access to social media and analytic tools for covert investigative purposes? The answer to this question also is unclear from documents CPD produced. In addition to the Confidential Analytics Section within the Bureau of Counterterrorism, the Bureau of Detectives Social Media Exploitation Team (SOMEX) utilizes social media investigations, according to a training document CPD produced and prior reporting by The Intercept. CPD’s directive also refers to other “units that conduct investigations using social media,” requiring each unit to “establish standard operating procedures and unit-level protocols created in consultation with the Legal Affairs Section and the Information Services Division.” G09-01-06 §IV.B. Those unit-level protocols were not the subject of ACLU’s FOIA request and are not available through CPD’s public directives portal.

Has CPD’s widespread collection of our social media feeds – what CPD terms “open-source intelligence” – made Chicago safer? CPD’s annual reports do not indicate the number of such investigations undertaken each year, nor whether they have resulted in any community safety benefit such as violent crimes solved, gang conflicts defused, or missing persons found. Before reauthorizing its social media investigation directives or renewing any technology contracts for the review, analysis or storage of information gleaned from social media, CPD should do a cost/benefit analysis. Is widespread monitoring and collection of social media posts enhancing community safety?

CPD’s policies prohibit targeting people for surveillance because of their race or ethnicity. But the Illinois Civil Rights Act (ICRA) also prohibits law enforcement activities that have an unjustified disparate impact based on race, national origin, or other protected characteristics. Does CPD keep data about the race or ethnicity of the individuals whose social media accounts it monitors, analyzes or collects online? Do these activities run afoul of ICRA because they disproportionately target Black and/or Latinx Chicagoans? CPD should be required to track and publicly report this data so the community knows who bears the brunt of CPD’s surveillance.

Most importantly, residents in Chicago deserve a say over whether and under what circumstances the police should be collecting information from our social media feeds. People often post the most intimate details of their lives on social media. The public deserves transparency and oversight over CPD’s use of this information for investigative purposes.