Pri­vacy and the po­lice

Our view: Law en­force­ment mon­i­tor­ing of so­cial me­dia must be care­fully con­trolled

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Imag­ine this sce­nario: A vi­o­lent dis­tur­bance — or worse yet, a ter­ror­ist at­tack — takes place dur­ing a pa­rade in Bal­ti­more or Tow­son or Lau­rel. A sus­pect is iden­ti­fied, and a cou­ple of days later, the me­dia re­ports that he had made a series of posts in so­cial me­dia in the days lead­ing up to the event us­ing threat­en­ing lan­guage to al­lude to what would hap­pen. Thep­ub­lic would al­most cer­tainly de­mand to know why the po­lice hadn’t picked up on those warn­ing signs in ad­vance, right?

As such, we can’t fault the sev­eral area po­lice de­part­ments that have con­tracted with a pri­vate com­pany that mon­i­tors and stores pub­lic so­cial me­dia posts. Fail­ing to keep an eye on what peo­ple post for global con­sump­tion would seem like 21st-cen­tury polic­ing mal­prac­tice. None­the­less, the tac­tic still must be em­ployed care­fully and un­der strict, trans­par­ent safe­guards. That’s par­tic­u­larly true for the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment, which is strug­gling to re­gain the pub­lic trust af­ter the Depart­ment of Jus­tice’s re­port show­ing it com­mit­ted rou­tine vi­o­la­tions of res­i­dents’ civil rights and the rev­e­la­tion that it had been con­duct­ing high-tech ae­rial sur­veil­lance with­out telling any­one, up to and in­clud­ing the mayor.

Based on a Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest, The Sun’s Ali­son Kneze­vich re­ported Tues­day that po­lice in Bal­ti­more City and Lau­rel, and in Anne Arun­del, Bal­ti­more and Howard coun­ties have con­tracted with the Chicago-based firm Ge­ofee­dia, which col­lects and maps so­cial me­dia posts on a va­ri­ety of plat­forms for law en­force­ment agen­cies and other clients. As with the sur­veil­lance plane, Bal­ti­more City’s use of it had not pre­vi­ously been pub­licly dis­closed, and the Po­lice Depart­ment’s con­tract did not go be­fore the Board of Es­ti­mates be­cause it is be­low the thresh­old amount that would trig­ger the need for that body’s ap­proval.

The in­ten­tion be­hind the pro­gram may be be­nign, but there is the po­ten­tial for abuse. The same tech­nol­ogy that al­lows po­lice to dis­cover peo­ple mak­ing threat­en­ing state­ments about a fes­ti­val or protest could also be used to find and cat­a­log crit­i­cism of the mayor. The idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched, given the May court rul­ing in a civil case find­ing that for­mer Anne Arun­del County Ex­ec­u­tive John Leopold had im­prop­erly or­dered county po­lice to com­pile dossiers on two of his per­ceived po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies. The fact that in­di­vid­ual pieces of in­for­ma­tion in the dossiers were cre­ated for valid gov­ern­men­tal pur­poses did not make their col­lec­tion le­git­i­mate for Mr. Leopold’s po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.

Aready data­base of geo-coded so­cial me­dia posts could al­low for that kind of abuse on a much more mas­sive scale. As the Leopold case shows, the as­ser­tion by de­fend­ers of the pro­gram that only those en­gaged in il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity have any­thing to fear from it is sim­ply not true. The rights of those who­have com­mit­ted no crimes are also at risk un­less these pro­grams are con­ducted ac­cord­ing to well pub­li­cized and en­forced stan­dards.

We un­der­stand the need for a de­gree of se­crecy in po­lice work. No one would ar­gue, for ex­am­ple, that the tar­get of a proper, ju­di­cially au­tho­rized wire­tap should be warned that his or her con­ver­sa­tions are be­ing recorded. But the mass col­lec­tion and stor­age of data on peo­ple about whom po­lice have no rea­son­able sus­pi­cion is dif­fer­ent, par­tic­u­larly in cases where it is not ob­vi­ous that it’s tak­ing place. Po­lice don’t need to give all the de­tails of their use of such tech­nol­ogy, but they should make pub­lic the pa­ram­e­ters of that use. Cops may not ad­ver­tise in ad­vance where they’re set­ting up speed traps, for ex­am­ple, but they do pub­li­cize the fact that they use radar to mon­i­tor for speed­ers. Po­lice could post no­tices on their web­sites of the types of wide-scale elec­tronic sur­veil­lance they per­form, the stan­dards govern­ing its use and their poli­cies re­gard­ing data col­lec­tion with­out hin­der­ing their ef­fec­tive­ness.

Of course, as the Leopold case shows, poli­cies (or, in that in­stance, laws) are only ef­fec­tive if they’re fol­lowed. Over­sight is needed — per­haps through a model like the pri­vacy om­buds­men em­ployed by Cana­dian prov­inces, or per­haps through ex­panded du­ties for the Civil­ian Re­view Board. In Bal­ti­more, es­pe­cially, the pub­lic is un­likely to have much con­fi­dence in the idea that the depart­ment will po­lice it­self. The city and Depart­ment of Jus­tice are ne­go­ti­at­ing a con­sent de­cree and set­ting up­on­go­ing mon­i­tor­ing of re­forms in re­sponse to the re­cent fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That makes this the best op­por­tu­nity we’re likely to have to en­sure that these new, high-tech sur­veil­lance tools not only pro­tect the com­mu­nity but also the civil rights of ev­ery in­di­vid­ual within it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.