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ACLU Seeks Info into Denver Police Use of Social Media Surveillance

Denver’s Spy Files Past Raises Serious Concerns about “Geofeedia” Acquisition

DENVER – Citing concerns that the Denver Police Department may once again be monitoring the free speech activities of individuals and groups that are not suspected of criminal activity, a practice Denver publicly agreed to stop in 2003, the ACLU of Colorado filed a records request this morning seeking information related to the Department’s acquisition and use of Geofeedia and other social media surveillance software.

“In 2002, the ACLU revealed that the Denver Police intelligence unit was routinely monitoring the First Amendment activities of peaceful protesters and maintaining ‘Spy Files’ on the expressive activities of law-abiding advocacy organizations,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director.  “After more than a year of litigation, Denver agreed to new policies and pledged to stop collecting information on how Denver residents exercise their First Amendment rights.”

“The Denver police recently purchased access to Geofeedia, which is marketed to police as a powerful tool for monitoring and collecting information on free speech activities.  We have serious questions about what the intelligence unit is doing with its new spying tool.  Have the police resumed the ‘Spy Files’ practices that they publicly agreed to abandon in 2003?”

Last month, the Daily Dot reported that the Denver Police Department used $30,000 in seized funds to purchase Geofeedia, surveillance software that allows officers to conduct location-based searches across at least a dozen social media platforms simultaneously.  In a promotional video, the surveillance software is marketed to law enforcement as a means to target public gatherings, using the example of a “Peace in Israel” rally in Chicago.

Lt. William Mitchell of the DPD Intelligence Bureau described Geofeedia in a funding request as an “intelligence and investigative platform” and listed the Martin Luther King Marade and the 420 Rally as examples of gatherings that police could monitor using the software.

An investigation by ACLU of Northern California into the Fresno Police Department’s use of similar software found that officers frequently searched for and monitored hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed, #PoliceBrutality, and #ItsTimeforChange.  The Associated Press recently reported on hundreds of cases where officers misused intelligence tools and databases for personal reasons that were not connected to daily police work.

In 2003, the ACLU of Colorado filed a class action challenging DPD’s practice of spying on peaceful protesters, maintaining “Spy Files” on activists who had done nothing more than attend rallies, meetings, and conferences, and disseminating information from the files to third parties.

As part of a settlement agreement with the ACLU, the City of Denver adopted a Criminal Intelligence Information policy that states, “The Department shall not collect or maintain information about the political, religious, social views, associations or activities of any individual or any group, association, corporation, business, partnership, or other organization, unless such information directly relates to criminal conduct or activity and there is a reasonable suspicion that the subject of the information is or may be involved in that criminal conduct or activity.”

The ACLU records request, which was delivered by email this morning, seeks the department’s current intelligence policy as well as any additional policies and training materials regarding social media surveillance.  The ACLU also requested a full list of search terms used by officers accessing Geofeedia.

“If the Denver Police Department has a policy to protect the public from a return to suspicion-less spying on free speech activities and from officers conducting surveillance for their own personal gain, then we invite the Department to produce it,” said Silverstein.  “Otherwise, the Department should suspend use of Geofeedia and any other social media surveillance immediately.”

Geofeedia was purchased by the Denver Police Department using funds seized from criminal suspects through civil asset forfeiture. The purchase was not disclosed to the public before it was made, and it was not subjected to any formal approval process by the Denver City Council.

Resources:

Police Use of Social Media Surveillance Software Is Escalating, and Activists Are in the Digital Crosshairs: https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/police-use-social-media-surveillance-software-escalating-and-activists-are-digital

Full Chronology of the Spy Files Controversy: http://aclu-co.org/spyfiles/chronology/

ACLU Records Request: http://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/2016-10-06-Dulacki-Silverstein.pdf

Denver Criminal Intelligence Information Policy: http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SettleAgreementExh1.pdf

 



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