People sitting next to each other on their phones.
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The Growing Threat of Police Surveilling Social Media

The United States has a long history of surveillance technology with anti-Black origins Information on how that surveillance is utilized is ambiguous at best (TruthOut). Recently, this has taken the form of pervasive police surveillance of social media.

One of the most infamous examples of U.S. surveillance and political repression was COINTELPRO. This massive counter-intelligence program aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize the activities of Black Nationalists” and anti-war movements throughout the 1960s and early 1970s (Berkeley). Its full scope only became public knowledge due to a break-in of an FBI office by three anti-war activists and their subsequent leaking of documents to the press in 1971 (Washington Post). 

This exposure of mass surveillance, deception, and violence against Black and leftist movements prompted a Senate investigation that exposed wide collaboration between the FBI, CIA, networks of coerced informants, and local police departments.

TAKE ACTION

• Support the work of Data For Black Lives and the Brennan Center For Justice.

Support the campaign against the Chicago gang database and local campaigns to hold police accountable.

Consider: how are policing and criminality portrayed in media? Who is described as a criminal? 

Fast forward to the attempted right-wing insurrection on January 6th, 2021, which was organized and executed through social media (Vox). In stark contrast to COINTELPRO and contemporary anti-racist movements facing police surveillance of social media, infiltration, and militarized repression, the January 6th protestors were ushered in by some of the officers working at the Capitol building. The difference in response is yet another display of whose ideologies are surveilled, and whose get to flourish in plain sight.

The legacy of white supremacy in the U.S. results in “violence” being used to describe actions and ideas that antagonize the status quo but not racism, poverty, queerphobia, or mass incarceration. Violence is not a term that sticks when applied to white nationalism because it is a foundational pillar of the U.S. 

The work of the Brennan Center for Justice and Data for Black Lives (D4BL) grapples with this reality by investigating how mass surveillance for “national security” is often a tool of racial control and targeting. In March, the two organizations filed a suit against the Washington DC Metro Police to enforce a public record request detailing the department’s use of social media monitoring tools (Brennan Center For Justice). 

Police surveillance of social media can look like anything from mapping potential crimes to establishing keywords and hashtags to monitor on sites like Facebook and Twitter. It often relies on data riddled with human error or is interpreted with bias. 

Organized Communities Against Deportations, Black Youth Project 100, and Mijente have been working to end the police’s gang database in Chicago (OCAD). 95% of the people on this list are people of color with no way of getting off or finding out who you landed on it in the first place. This gang designation information is shared with 500 agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This data collection and multifaceted surveillance leaves open the door for police to target Black and Brown neighborhoods with impunity.

The Brennan Center and D4BL are suing the D.C. police because they have refused to comply with Freedom of Information A (FOIA)ct requests made in 2020. Rachel Levinson-Waldman at Brennan Center says this has been a pattern at this particular police department (Brennan Center for Justice).

“One big value is transparency right, and knowing what the government is up to or knowing what these police departments are up to, but it also isn’t just transparency for transparency’s sake. It’s to aid in making change where it’s needed and to raise public awareness,” Levinson-Waldman, Managing Director at Brennan Center and a long-time civil liberties lawyer and advocate, told the ARD.

Levinson-Waldman also pointed out the interconnectedness between predictive policing and social media monitoring, saying what is most concerning is “the market for it.” She explained how social media is increasingly used as a prediction tool, another revelation from LAPD records secured with separate FOIA requests. The interest in predicting who could do harm— from a school shooter to what the U.S. defines as terrorists—raises serious issues around privacy and the metrics used to determine who is harmful and criminal and who is not.

Data For Black Lives have pointed out how this ever-expanding market for policing technology impacts Black communities. Their No More Data Weapons campaign centers the lives and lived experiences of Black communities while disengaging from national narratives that position technology and policing as the only ways to achieve safety (D4BL). D4BL points out that policing originates in enslavement and has more to do with control and disenfranchisement than it does with safety.

In suing the Metro P.D. for their social media monitoring records, the Brennan Center and D4BL are working to continue to set precedents for accountability while building public awareness that can ultimately support police abolition and the building of supported, not surveilled, communities online and off. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Policing in the U.S. has biased origins.

• The Brennan Center and Data for Black Lives are suing the DC Metro police to release their records on police surveillance of social media.

• Knowing how police departments use social media monitoring can aid in holding police accountable for bias.

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