On November 8, more than 130 million Americans turned out to cast their ballots in the presidential election. While a presidential election is a critical moment in a democracy, democracy is a year-round endeavor, not just a quadrennial experiment. And a well-functioning democracy requires transparency about the government’s operations, especially law enforcement. That increasingly means transparency around the use of social media.
Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice released a map showing that 151 police departments, cities, and counties across the country have collectively spent millions of dollars on software enabling them to monitor activity on social media—a number that almost certainly understates both the number of jurisdictions and the amounts expended. These tools allow agencies to mine social-media posts for individuals’ location and other data; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram even supplied special data feeds to companies that allowed law enforcement to track protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
According to the Brennan Center’s research, big spenders include the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which spent nearly $200,000 over two and a half years; the County of Los Angeles, which also spent close to $200,000 over three years; and Harris County, Texas, which spent over $150,000 in the same number of years. Only a small fraction of the jurisdictions surveyed have publicly available policies on how to use social media to monitor civilians.
The new revelations are not surprising. In a recent survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, over half of the responding law-enforcement agencies reported that they used social media for “listening/monitoring,” and three-quarters for “intelligence.” On the federal side, the Department of Homeland Security, which already monitors social media domestically, recently floated a vague and ill-conceived proposal to request “social media identifiers” from 20 million travelers per year.