Seattle Police Department under fire for social media surveillance

SEATTLE – What you do on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is largely public.  But should it be secretly monitored by the Seattle Police Department?

Police say they did nothing wrong when they bought and used a more than $14,000 social media monitoring software.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Seattle says civil rights were violated.

SPD released a statement saying what they did does not violate the guidelines in the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance or Seattle Intelligence Ordinance.  Others argue simply getting the software and using it without approval from the City Council is a violation in itself.  The allegations have led to an SPD Office of Professional Accountability investigation.

What you like, comment, or share on any of your social media accounts is largely public, but ACLU of Washington’s Technology & Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan says companies like Gofeedia go deeper.

“It actually uses powerful algorithms that can allow you to track someone’s movements, someone’s associations, perhaps the religion they follow, a whole bunch of information that person wouldn’t voluntarily be making public,” said Narayan.

So why would the Seattle Police Department need to buy this $14,000 software?

“This may be rationalized that this makes us safer, but we need to have that public debate,” said Narayan.

But that didn’t happen, according to Seattle City Council member Lorena Gonzalez.

“At this point, I’m not aware of a legitimate reason as to why they would need to circumvent the city’s process to acquire the software,” said Gonzalez.

Narayan says the lack of transparency by SPD raises concerns.  He points to the misuse of similar software by California police departments.

“If an incident is happening, say it’s a protest, they can actually mark out a particular perimeter and monitor everyone’s social media presence who’s within that perimeter,” said Narayan.

But exactly how SPD used the software isn’t clear.  SPD released this statement, “The Seattle Police Department is working closely with the Seattle Information Technology department (SeaIT) to ensure investigators have the necessary tools to pursue serious and complex crimes in an increasingly digital world.

"A department legal review has determined that the use of these tools does not conflict with either the City of Seattle's Intelligence or Surveillance ordinances, but in keeping with the department’s commitment to transparency, SPD has also asked the City of Seattle Intelligence Auditor to conduct a full review of SPD’s use of digital technologies.

"We believe this audit, and any other reviews, will confirm SPD’s public safety efforts are both lawful and in keeping with our commitments to privacy. We look forward to discussing this subject with City Council further.

"SPD will continue to seek out the most effective tools available, to ensure effective and constitutional policing in our city."

"We need to make sure that in the course of doing their job that they are not inadvertently or intentionally violating people’s privacy rights,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez says the police department stopped using the software in June.

The Office of Professional Accountability describes itself as an independent office within the Seattle Police Department.  The director released this statement, “On September 28, 2016 a news story published by The Stranger contained information indicating the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had purchased a software product called Geofeedia in direct violation of a provision of the Seattle Municipal Code requiring City Council approval before any City Department acquires surveillance equipment.

"OPA has opened a preliminary investigation into this matter to address the acquisition of this product. OPA will also be considering allegations against one or more SPD employees who may have used this piece of surveillance software to violate the constitutional rights of community members.

"At the conclusion of this 30-day preliminary investigation, the OPA Director will determine whether to launch a full investigation into these and any other allegations that may come to light during the preliminary investigation.”