As Police Monitor Social Media, Legal Lines Become Blurred
Social media monitoring started in the world of marketing, allowing companies to track what people were saying about their brands. But now, with software that allows users to scan huge volumes of public postings on social media, police are starting to embrace it as well.
Many police departments in Britain use a product sold by CrowdControlHQ. CEO James Leavesley says the company is in the business of monitoring "social media risk."
Companies can use the product to keep tabs on what employees say on social media or watch what others are saying. British police use it to stay in touch with the public in their jurisdictions — and as a means to detect trouble.
"By looking at keywords, it can track conversations," Leavesley says. "Vulnerable people" — who might be suicidal or abused, for example — "have been identified and reached out to."
In the U.S., a company called BrightPlanet sells a product that is more explicitly marketed as an investigative tool.
"If you had 1,500 gang members, like we do in Detroit — we have their handles, so we're able to identify what the gang members are doing," says BrightPlanet Vice President Tyson Johnson.
The tool, called BlueJay, is capable of scanning the entire "fire hose" of tweets, he says — far more than is available to search from the Twitter Web page. It can be configured to focus on tweets coming from certain places, and it can collect instant photographic evidence from a disturbance.
"If we'd been able to monitor real-time during the Boston Marathon, they'd have an immediate repository to interrogate, as soon as the bombs happened," Johnson says.
Location information depends on people leaving their geotagging option on, and only a small subset of Twitter users do. But when they do, BlueJay can track their movements over time on its map. For police, it's a potential gold mine of information.
"It's like a stakeout," says Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. "If persons are talking about certain criminal activity, it alerts us to it."
But some police hesitate to use these tools. Keenan says he understands that this is all public information — people tweet this information voluntarily — but he says that there are many public things the police should not monitor. He gives the example of a political rally.
"For law enforcement to be there and to take photographs of all the participants — monitoring — is not against the law, but it's not acceptable," Keenan says.
So even on the public Internet, Keenan requires his agents to get permission from a supervisor before they scan social media. They have to explain what they're monitoring and why.
Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington law school who specializes in privacy issues, says police could run into trouble searching on the Internet.
"If officers were [scanning social media] on the basis of gender and then making decisions on that basis, you could run into constitutional scrutiny," Calo says. "And you'd be almost sure to if your keyword involved the word 'Muslim.' "
Calo says the law is fuzzier when it comes to other kinds of searches, such as political keywords. The law and the courts are far behind the technology, and no police department wants to become the test case. Calo says it's not clear whether it would be illegal for police to monitor for a keyword such as "Occupy," but that doesn't mean police should feel free to do so.
"Any police officer ought to sort of think through a kind of publicity principle, which is, 'If it were to get out that we did this exact search, what would the public reaction be?' " Calo says.
That's why Keenan is now campaigning to get more police departments to set up internal rules for social media scanning. He thinks the tools are useful, and he's worried that a public backlash could cause law enforcement to lose them.
At the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Keenan gave a speech warning his colleagues that social media monitoring is a "hot stove issue" for police.
"[And I] know what happens when you touch a hot stove — you get burned," he said.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to that other story I mentioned. It's no secret that police search social media. It's useful for investigations and if a posting is public, there's no need for a court order. But now, some police are using powerful social media monitoring tools for their searches. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the software is making even some cops nervous.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When you search Twitter, you're not actually searching the whole thing. There are millions of tweets a day and it's technically impossible to search all that from the Twitter page. But you can if you have something called Bluejay.
TYSON JOHNSON: Let's see what pops up.
KASTE: Tyson Johnson is vice president at the company that makes this product, which is meant for security operations and police departments. It lets them search the entire Twitter fire hose, as Johnson calls it.
JOHNSON: So you can imagine if you had 1,500 gang members like we do in Detroit, we have their handles so we're able to identify what the gang members are doing.
KASTE: And where they're doing it, at least the ones who leave their location settings on. He plugs in the search term weed and the pertinent tweets pop up on a map.
JOHNSON: You see how somebody has their GPS on here. So if we have a history of that person tweeting over, say, a month or two month period, you can run it through another technology called Geotime and it'll actually plot for you, by time, date, location, where that individual goes.
KASTE: Now, keep in mind this is not a case of the police asking the phone company for data. The information is already public. People are voluntarily tweeting what they think, where they are and what they photographed. Social media monitoring actually comes out of the world of marketing. Companies use similar tools to track what people are saying about their brands. It's just that now the police have discovered it.
Vernon Keenan is director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
VERNON KEENAN: It's like a stakeout, you know. If persons are talking about, you know, criminal activity, it alerts us to it.
KASTE: But here's the thing. While the companies selling these services say the police should feel free to scan social media, some police are hesitant. Keenan is one of them.
KEENAN: What public can do, law enforcement cannot do.
KASTE: Yes, he says, tweets are public, but there are plenty of public things that the police are not supposed to monitor, say, political rallies.
KEENAN: For law enforcement to be there and to take photographs of all the participants, monitoring is not against the law, but it's not acceptable.
KASTE: So Keenan requires his agents to get a supervisor's permission before they monitor social media. They have to lay out what they're searching for and why. It seems like overkill, forcing cops to ask permission just to search the public Internet, but cops are different. Ryan Calo is a professor at the University of Washington Law School. He says there are certain kinds of searches that a police officer should be careful of.
RYAN CALO: If officers were looking on the basis of gender and then making decisions on that basis, you could run into constitutional scrutiny. And you would be almost sure to if your keyword involved the word Muslim.
KASTE: But beyond protected classes like race and religion, Calo says the law on this is pretty unclear. Police departments don't like to talk about their monitoring, and no one is eager to become a test case. Calo says there may be no legal barrier to the police scanning Twitter for political keywords, say, #occupy, but he says that doesn't mean they should.
CALO: Any police officer, you know, ought to sort of think through a kind of publicity principal, which is if it were to get out that we did this exact search, what would the public reaction be, and what would the constitutional import be?
KASTE: Which brings us back to Vernon Keenan at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He's been campaigning to get more police departments to set up rules for social media monitoring. He wants to avoid a backlash that might deprive cops of a useful tool. Last fall he gave a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police warning them that social media scanning was a kind of hot stove.
KEENAN: And you know what happened when you touch a hot stove, you get burned.
KASTE: As you might guess from that audio quality, the speech was recorded by someone in the audience and uploaded to the Internet. The funny thing is even before Keenan sat down, he knew he'd been recorded because one of his colleagues up on the dais had been monitoring Twitter. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.