Po­lice mon­i­tor so­cial media

Con­trac­tor gath­ers, maps and stores posts to var­i­ous web­sites

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Kneze­vich

Po­lice in Bal­ti­more and sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties have been us­ing a ser­vice that mon­i­tors, maps and stores cit­i­zens’ so­cial media posts — a prac­tice that has drawn the con­cern of civil lib­er­tar­i­ans.

Bal­ti­more po­lice say they have used the ser­vice, called Ge­ofee­dia, to mon­i­tor protests, pa­rades and hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions. In Howard County, po­lice used it to gather in­for­ma­tion and find peo­ple who needed help dur­ing the July flood­ing in El­li­cott City, and af­ter the Columbia Mall shoot­ing in 2014.

Posts col­lected by law en­force­ment are archived in a se­cure data ware­house, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Bal­ti­more Sun us­ing the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act.

Civil lib­er­tar­i­ans warn that such mon­i­tor­ing can have a chill­ing ef­fect on po­lit­i­cal speech. Po­lice em­pha­size that they mon­i­tor only the so­cial media posts that users share pub­licly.

“The only peo­ple that have any­thing to fear about any­thing be­ing mon­i­tored are those that are crim­i­nals and at­tempt­ing to com­mit crim­i­nal acts,” Bal­ti­more po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith said. “We’re not look­ing for what you did last night and your self­ies and your Snapchats. We don’t have time for that.”

Smith said po­lice search for “things that might be of con­cern,” such as threats of vi­o­lence. He de­clined to give de­tails on how

po­lice con­duct such searches.

Bal­ti­more po­lice have used an aerial surveil­lance plane to record footage of the streets be­low, and “stingray” technology that tracks cell­phone sig­nals. Aaron Mackey, a lawyer at the civil lib­er­ties watch­dog Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, says such tech­nolo­gies raise ques­tions.

“None of this is be­ing used in iso­la­tion,” Mackey said. “Are you see­ing the com­mu­nity as an ad­ver­sary in a war set­ting, or are you see­ing them as the pub­lic you are serv­ing?”

At least five area po­lice de­part­ments use the ser­vice: Anne Arun­del County, Bal­ti­more, Bal­ti­more County, Howard County, and Lau­rel.

Ge­ofee­dia, based in Chicago, did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment. The plat­form al­lows users to map out peo­ple’s posts from In­sta­gram, Twitter, Face­book, YouTube, Flickr and other so­cial media out­lets.

“Our patented tech­nolo­gies al­low you to search ar­eas as large as a city or as small as a sin­gle build­ing across mul­ti­ple so­cial media ser­vices,” the com­pany said in a pro­posal to the city of Lau­rel.

Users can de­fine spe­cific ar­eas to search and mon­i­tor, the com­pany said. Con­tent cap­tured by users is archived in “our se­cure data ware­house.”

A spokes­woman for Lau­rel de­clined to com­ment on how Ge­ofee­dia is used there. Anne Arun­del County po­lice, which also use Ge­ofee­dia, did not re­spond to ques­tions about its use there.

Bal­ti­more pays $18,000 a year for Ge­ofee­dia, ac­cord­ing to its con­tract. Smith said po­lice have used it to mon­i­tor protests, Fourth of July events, marathons and the St. Pa­trick’s Day Pa­rade.

So­cial media is “a reg­u­lar in­ves­tiga­tive tool that any po­lice of­fi­cer should use be­cause peo­ple talk, and peo­ple talk pub­licly,” Smith said. “If you can glean in­for­ma­tion from some­thing that’s al­ready pub­lic, you ab­so­lutely should take the op­por­tu­nity to do so.”

Ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments in­cluded in Ge­ofee­dia’s con­tract with the city, Bal­ti­more po­lice can use Ge­ofee­dia to “con­tin­u­ously mon­i­tor and record so­cial media.” They can also set up alert no­ti­fi­ca­tions “trig­gered by spe­cific keywords, phrases or users.”

The city con­tract be­gan in 2014 and was re­newed in 2015, said Ti­mothy Krus, the city’s pur­chas­ing agent. The agree­ment did not need the ap­proval of the Board of Es­ti­mates be­cause it was un­der $25,000, he said. Bal­ti­more County last year en­tered into a five-year con­tract with Ge­ofee­dia that pays the com­pany $20,000 an­nu­ally.

“Ge­ofee­dia is used to ob­serve real-time so­cial media post­ings dur­ing crit­i­cal in­ci­dents, such as a bar­ri­cade or an ac­tive shooter, as well as for plan­ning the de­part­ment’s re­sponse to a crime trend in a par­tic­u­lar area,” the county po­lice de­part­ment said in a state­ment to The Sun. “In ad­di­tion, it can be used to help plan for com­mu­nity events.”

The de­part­ment em­pha­sized that Ge­ofee­dia can­not col­lect in­for­ma­tion on pri­vate so­cial media posts. The county ad­min­is­tra­tion no­ti­fied the County Coun­cil of the con­tract last year, spokes­woman Ellen Kobler said, but the pur­chase of soft­ware does not re­quire the coun­cil’s ap­proval.

Ge­ofee­dia says on its web­site that it has uses be­yond law en­force­ment. Re­tail­ers, for in­stance, can use it to an­a­lyze cus­tomers’ so­cial media use.

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