The LAPD’s Policy of Collecting People’s Social Media Info Is Raising Eyebrows

Department records are raising questions about surveillance tactics and how officers are using civilians’ info

A public information request by the Brennan Center for Justice reveals that Los Angeles Police Department officers have been instructed to collect the social media information of every civilian they interview. According to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, the department directs its officers to engage in “extensive surveillance of social media without internal monitoring of the nature or effectiveness of the searches.”

When an LAPD officer questions a civilian—even those who aren’t accused of a crime—they’re instructed to fill out a “field interview” card with basic biographical info like name, sex, and date of birth. In recent years, the cards were updated with a field where officers record the interview subject’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter handles, as The Guardian was first to report. An internal memo handed over to the Brennan Center shows that the department’s police chief, Michel Moore, told officers that it was critical to collect the data, which is intended for use in “investigations, arrests, and prosecutions,” and warned that supervisors would review the cards to ensure that they were being filled out completely.

The records also show that the department budgeted $73,000 to purchase new social media surveillance software through a company called Media Sonar, which would supposedly help the department “address a potential threat or incident before its occurrence,” The Guardian reports.

The LAPD’s expansion of social media surveillance of civilians has raised questions regarding potential violations of privacy rights and civil liberties, especially for communities of color and activists.

“There are real dangers about police having all of this social media identifying information at their fingertips,” Brennan Center deputy director Rachel Levinson-Waldman told The Guardian, adding that there’s a chance the info was stored in a database. A Buzzfeed story published last year indicates that the LAPD does, in fact, aggregate field interview information into a database run by Palantir, a surveillance company.

Field interview cards
Photo by Brennan Center for Justice

The department added “social media accounts” as a line on their physical field interview cards in 2015, according to a memo from former LAPD chief Charlie Beck. He told The Guardian, “Similar to a nickname or an alias, a person’s online persona or identity used for social media…can be highly beneficial to investigations.”

The Brennan Center, which filed a public records request for the information in January 2020, reviewed policies at 40 police departments across the country and didn’t find another agency that required such information on field interview cards, The Guardian reports. The LAPD cards also include a line to record interviewees’ social security numbers, and a script that warns it “must be provided” pursuant to federal law. An immigration law expert told The Guardian she’s not familiar with any such law.

Particularly troubling, according to the Brennan Center, is the department’s lack of guidance regarding officers’ surveillance on social media platforms. The department’s 2015 social media user guide states that officers are allowed to create a “fictitious online persona to engage in investigative activity” which “does not constitute online undercover activity.”

Department policy also encourages social media “listening,” but doesn’t impose limits on “continuous” monitoring and doesn’t provide supervision to determine whether it is being used inappropriately or discriminatorily. The Brennan Center also obtained documents related to Geofeedia, a private social media intelligence platform that partners with law enforcement and has previously marketed itself as a tool to monitor Black Lives Matter protests.

The city attorney’s office says the LAPD stopped using the service around 2017, The Guardian reports, and Media Sonar didn’t respond to the publication’s request for comment.

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