The Los Angeles police department (LAPD) has directed its officers to collect the social media information of every civilian they interview, including individuals who are not arrested or accused of a crime, according to records shared with the Guardian.
Copies of the “field interview cards” that police complete when they question civilians reveal that LAPD officers are instructed to record a civilian’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media accounts, alongside basic biographical information. An internal memo further shows that the police chief, Michel Moore, told employees that it was critical to collect the data for use in “investigations, arrests, and prosecutions”, and warned that supervisors would review cards to ensure they were complete.
The documents, which were obtained by the not-for-profit organization the Brennan Center for Justice, have raised concerns about civil liberties and the potential for mass surveillance of civilians without justification.
“There are real dangers about police having all of this social media identifying information at their fingertips,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a deputy director at the Brennan Center, noting that the information was probably stored in a database that could be used for a wide range of purposes.
The Brennan Center conducted a review of 40 other police agencies in the US and was unable to find another department that required social media collection on interview cards (though many have not publicly disclosed copies of the cards). The organization also obtained records about the LAPD’s social media surveillance technologies, which have raised questions about the monitoring of activist groups including Black Lives Matter.
In 2015, the department added “social media accounts” as a line on the physical field interview cards, according to a newly unearthed memo from the previous LAPD chief, Charlie Beck. “Similar to a nickname or an alias, a person’s online persona or identity used for social media … can be highly beneficial to investigations,” he wrote.
While the social media collection has gone largely unnoticed, the LAPD’s use of field interview cards has prompted controversy. Last October, prosecutors filed criminal charges against three officers in the LAPD’s metro division, accusing them of using the cards to falsely label civilians as gang members after stopping them. That unit also has a history of stopping Black drivers at disproportionately high rates, and according to the LA Times, has more frequently filled out cards for Black and Latino residents they stopped.
Meanwhile, more than half of the civilians stopped by metro officers and documented in the cards were not arrested or cited, the Times reported. The fact that a department under scrutiny for racial profiling was also engaged in broad scale social media account collection is troubling, said Levinson-Waldman.
Furthermore, when police obtain social media usernames it opens the door for officers to monitor an individual’s connections and “friends” online, creating additional privacy concerns. “It allows for a huge expansion of network surveillance,” said Levinson-Waldman, noting how police and prosecutors have previously used Facebook photos and “likes” to make dubious or false allegations of criminal gang activity.
Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition noted that the LAPD also shares data with federal law enforcement agencies through “fusion centers”, and has previously used “predictive policing” technologies that rely on data collected by officers in the field and which can criminalize communities of color.
“This is like stop and frisk,” he said, of the use of field interview cards. “And this is happening with the clear goal of surveillance.” The LAPD, he noted, has allowed officers to pose undercover to investigate groups, meaning officers can create fake social media accounts to infiltrate groups.
Dr Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, said she had long suspected the LAPD conducted “targeted tracking” of specific groups or individual accounts, but was surprised to learn of the default collection of this information in everyday encounters. She fears this could be part of “a massive surveillance operation”.
The copies of the cards obtained by the Brennan Center also revealed that police are instructed to ask civilians for their social security numbers and are advised to tell interviewees that “it must be provided” under federal law. Kathleen Kim, a Loyola law professor and immigrants’ rights expert, who previously served on the LA police commission, said she was not aware of any law requiring individuals to disclose social security numbers to local police.
And she said she was shocked to learn about the social security section on the cards, noting that it was “so antithetical to the department’s own policies” and clearly violated the spirit of sanctuary laws, which are supposed to prevent officers from asking civilians their immigration status. The LAPD had previously taken steps to ensure it was not requesting place of birth information to improve trust with undocumented communities, she said.
The LAPD told the Guardian on Tuesday that the field interview card policy was “being updated”, but declined to provide further details.
The revelations of broad social media data collection also raised concerns about how police monitor activists.
The Brennan Center obtained LAPD documents related to Geofeedia, a private social media monitoring firm that partners with law enforcement and has previously marketed itself as a tool to monitor BLM protests.
One internal document, which is undated but appeared to be several years old, listed the “keywords” and hashtags that the LAPD appeared to be monitoring through Geofeedia – and they were almost exclusively related to Black Lives Matter and similar leftist protests. It included #BLMLA, #SayHerName, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, #fuckdonaldtrump and the names of people killed by LA police that prompted major protests.
The list did not include any hashtags for rightwing demonstrations and far-right movements, which have grown increasingly violent in recent years in the region.
The context in which these search terms were used is unclear from the records provided, and the LAPD did not respond to questions. The city attorney’s office said the LAPD stopped using Geofeedia around 2017 and that the agency did not have a current list of keywords for social media monitoring.
Abdullah, who helped organize around many of the hashtags the LAPD was monitoring, noted that BLM’s actions were non-violent: “They’re following Black protesters who are organizing to stop violence and saying, ‘Stop killing us’ … And are they turning a blind eye to those who are actually violent: the white supremacist organizations that are growing in number?”
In a 2016 memo to LAPD included in the records, another social media tracking company, Dataminr, listed under “success stories” its tracking of a BLMLA protest outside a jail, saying the firm “uncovered the first images of people at the protest”, as well as its tracking of a protest featuring “a giant blowup statue of Trump”. The local news site, LA Taco, reported last week that LAPD had used Dataminr to monitor last year’s BLM protests for George Floyd.
Jacinta González, an organizer with advocacy group, Mijente, said the LAPD records appeared to fit a pattern of how police in America respond to protest organizations: “There is a long history of law enforcement using surveillance, whether in-person or through digital technologies to attack Black and Latino movements fighting for racial justice.”
The Brennan Center’s records further revealed the LAPD is now seeking to use technology from a new company, Media Sonar, which also tracks social media for police. In the 2021 budget, the LAPD allotted $73,000 to purchase Media Sonar software to help the department “address a potential threat or incident before its occurrence”.
The extent of the LAPD’s Media Sonar use is unclear, but the company’s communications with the LAPD have raised questions. In one message, the firm said its services can be used to “stay on-top of drug/gang/weapon slang keywords and hashtags”. Levinson-Waldman said she feared the company or police would misinterpret “slang” or lack proper context on local groups and language, and she noted research showing that online threats made by gang-affiliated youth largely don’t escalate to violence.
Media Sonar also told the LAPD it offers “pre-built keyword groups” to “help jumpstart implementation” of threat models, and helps police “cast a wide net”. The firm also said it could provide a “full digital snapshot of an individual’s online presence including all related personas and connections”.
The messages from Media Sonar suggested that the department needed significant safeguards to ensure that keywords didn’t disparately target marginalized communities and checks to ensure the data was accurate, Levinson-Waldman said.
Records show that the LAPD has requested federal funding for Media Sonar for “terrorism prevention”, but some advocates are concerned it would be used for protests. In March, a city council report analyzing the LAPD’s response to BLM protests recommended the department purchase software to analyze social media content.
Media Sonar did not respond to inquiries about its relationship with the LAPD. The LAPD did not respond to requests for comment about Media Sonar.