APD’s Social Media Monitoring Efforts Face Crackdowns

Facebook denies access to third-party companies

APD used social media monitoring systems to track activist activity during Occupy Austin in Oct. 2011. (Photo by John Anderson)

Three weeks ago, on Halloween morning, the knowledge that law enforcement agencies monitor political protests through social media reached a viral tipping point. Thousands of Facebook users in Austin and across the country faked a location "check-in" to the pipeline protests in Standing Rock, N.D., in an effort to fool law enforcement, which protesters believed had been monitoring the site to identify those actually located at Standing Rock.

What many who checked-in didn't realize was exactly how law enforcement agencies monitor social media. Hundreds of agencies across the county, including the Austin Police Department, use social media monitoring software (SMMS) developed by third-party companies that tap into the hidden data collected by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other networks for the direct purpose of determining users' locations. By using IP addresses, metadata stored in photos and videos, and even language processing, SMMS collects and provides data to law enforcement beyond a simple "check-in" made by a misguided Facebook user.

The Chronicle first reported on Austin-based SMMS company Snap Trends and APD's use of their software last year ("APD Tracks Social Media," Sept. 4, 2015). Since, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Northern California has conducted an investigation into the leading SMMS company, Chicago-based Geofeedia, whose software APD has also used. According to an Oct. 11 article on the Daily Dot, an ACLU report on its investigation into Geofeedia prompted Twitter and Facebook to block Geofeedia's access to its data banks for violating both companies' policies.

However, open records requests made by the Chronicle to APD reveal documents that raise questions about the department's current work relationship with SMMS. Included in the records is a form email sent to APD from Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris, who reassured department officials that Geofeedia had "been in contact with Twitter – as we have with a number of other partners, to include certain privacy groups – to answer their questions and address their concerns." Addressing law enforcement agencies, the email concluded: "You are saving lives and helping people in an honest and forthright way; we at Geofeedia are going to continue to work to ensure that you are able to leverage the publicly available information that is accessible through our platform. We look forward to continuing to work on these matters, which are critical for our clients, our company and the communities that we serve. We are working as quickly as possible to address them."

Geofeedia did not respond to questions from the Chronicle.

The Chronicle has also asked for recent email between Snap Trends and APD in an effort to determine the current status of their relationship. But meanwhile, Snap Trends CEO Eric Klasson told the Chronicle: "In October 2016, Snap Trends ended all sales and marketing to any state or local government agency." But he would not acknowledge if Snap Trends maintained a current working relationship with APD, which has already purchased its product and therefore does not necessarily need to be marketed to. "The focus of the company is on the corporate marketplace and related use cases focusing on brands, products, promotions, services, events, trade shows, etc.," elaborated Klasson, but he would not name any corporate Snap Trends clients.

“Those tools aren’t as robust as they used to be,” said Sergeant Jeff Greenwalt, ARIC Deputy Director.

On Monday, ARIC Deputy Director Sergeant Jeff Greenwalt told the Chronicle that APD holds contracts with Geofeedia and Snap Trends that remain in effect until March 2017 but would not elaborate on how often the department utilizes the two services. "Those tools aren't as robust as they used to be," he said.

According to a document dated March 25, 2015, and titled "Situational Usage Ideas," Snap Trends provided APD with instructions for "Event/Protest Monitoring" and "Inserting People Profiles/Finding New People." These asserted that Snap Trends' "system will help you proactively find people you weren't aware of in advance by capturing them in a geo-query." The document also explained: "If you already know a person's user handle you can create a Person Profile on them to pull historical data and collect future posts."

A 38-page Geofeedia software manual dated July 2014 and obtained through an open records request with APD shows the company received data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, Flickr, Picasa, and LinkedIn. The Chronicle contacted each of those companies with questions about Geofeedia and Snap Trends. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that both Geofeedia and Snap Trends have been denied access to their data stream, which also includes Instagram. A Google spokesperson acknowledged that Geo­feedia's access to the YouTube API (data) had been disabled, but would not acknowledge if Snap Trends' access had also been disabled. As of press time, we have not received a comment from Twitter.

The Geofeedia manual includes instructions on how to conduct real-time searching and record the results for later analysis. The software provides law enforcement with the ability to draw a circle or even specific shape over a map to isolate data coming from only that area. Keywords are then used to target social media activity. The manual also notes that the software allows law enforcement to receive alerts via email "based on keywords or phrases."

Additional open records documents demonstrate that APD's use of SMMS is primarily done at the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC), a local "fusion center" established by a Department of Homeland Security program in the wake of 9/11. There are approximately 70 such centers spread across the country.

Police surveillance of political activity on social media can lead to the disruption of such activity when the surveillance is fed to undercover officers. In 2012, court documents revealed that three undercover APD officers had infiltrated Occupy Austin and built devices for the group that raised charges for civil disobedience from misdemeanors to felonies. Numerous documents obtained by the Chronicle indicated that APD followed Occupy Austin daily on social media, which provided intelligence for ARIC and the undercover officers. APD used SMMS to monitor the group's first day occupying City Hall Plaza on Oct. 6, 2011.

With the ACLU's investigation, use of SMMS by law enforcement may have taken a hit, but if the vague or absent answers from the parties involved are any indication, this form of surveillance may yet be completely curtailed.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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More Snap Trends
APD Tracks Social Media
APD Tracks Social Media
Local social media monitoring software company met with shady digital spying group

John Anderson, Sept. 4, 2015

More by John Anderson
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Dec. 11, 2020

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Snap Trends, Geofeedia, Austin Police Department, Phil Harris, Standing Rock, Eric Klasson

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