A version of this article appears on LittleSis
In keeping with our mission to monitor and track the powerful people who rule over the rest of us, 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.
In our information requests to police, we asked for contracts with social media monitoring companies, records of correspondence with these companies, documents containing social media monitoring policy, all records of archived social media postings, and more.
All of the contracts we’ve received so far mention a company called Geofeedia - previous reports indicate that Geofeedia also has contracts with Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. 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.
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.
Geofeedia is financed by the private equity firm Silversmith Capital Partners and the venture capital firm 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 marketers and 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 tested 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 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, which contracts with Geofeedia, in 2014 and 2015.
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:
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 an email.
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 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.
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:
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.”
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 a compulsion to share our thoughts, even potentially illegal ones, law enforcers sees it as a tool to preempt behavior that appears threatening to the status quo - this is the predictive business model to which Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris aspires. We caught a glimpse of where this road could take us in Michigan, where local news recently reported that a man calling for civil unrest because of the Flint water crisis was the target of a criminal investigation initiated by his Facebook post.
At worst, social media monitoring could create classes of “pre-criminals” apprehended before they commit crimes, if police and prosecutors can successfully argue that social media postings forecast intent.
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 to file a cloned request. You can use the template we used, or you can create your own.