San Diego cops aren't just checking their Twitter feeds anymore, they are now tapping into a vast font of personal information generated by online social network users, with the public none the wiser.
That's the word from city hall, where the administration of Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer has quietly inked an $18,000, one-year deal with Chicago-based Geofeedia to scarf up virtually all the electronic goings-on of the local citizenry and map it out for police inspection.
For that money, according to documents unearthed from the city in response to a public records act request from Muckrock.com, Geofeedia is providing its service to 30 police-department users who have access to "up to five real time streams," tracking six high-volume social network services: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, and Sina Weibo.
Though little known to the public at large, Geofeedia has been making sizable waves in the burgeoning world of online location snooping.
"The company’s proprietary software allows subscribers to literally outline regions of a map as small as a few city blocks to review all the public check-ins, tweets, pictures and posts in that area," reported Adweek shortly after the service rolled out two years ago.
"What makes Geofeedia interesting, and potentially terrifying, is its ability to monitor an area 24/7 and create searchable databases of any and all public posts within that boundary — and then to expand its collection of specific targets’ information beyond the geo-tagged posts," noted the website Inverse.com last November.
"It means that the NYPD could — and maybe did — geofence Zuccotti Park for the entirety of the Occupy Wall Street movement."
Continues Inverse, "Does the public understand that tweeting from a protest subjects you to enrollment in a police database? As anti-refugee sentiment and Islamophobia trend upward, what’s to stop law enforcement from geofencing mosques, or predominantly Muslim neighborhoods? It’s true that the police would only be searching what’s public, but will selective attention result in discriminatory practices?"
A similar data-gathering system called SnapTrends being used by police in Racine, Wisconsin, caught the attention of editorialists at that city's Journal Times.
"Police officials have declined to provide specifics on how the department might use the SnapTrends software program, saying 'the publication of investigative strategies and tactics could compromise future investigations.”"
Notes the paper, "That is a little worrisome. The question then becomes who polices the police? It’s one thing to use software to scan local social media for publicly posted information. It’s another to use enhanced electronic techniques to geolocate the source of posts or tweets — then constitutional issues may come into play."
Adds the editorial, "How long will records be stored? Are they public records that can be reviewed by the public and the press? Can SnapTrends sell this information to others?"
Concludes the piece, "The public deserves to know a little bit more about how it will work, how the department will use it to make sure that the rights of citizens are protected against any overzealous spying that goes beyond just monitoring what’s out there in the public domain."
According to the sales pitch on Geofeedia's website, "Only relying on keyword and hashtag listening means you are missing two thirds of social media activity. Add location-based intelligence to your social media data set to increase your community engagement."
Advises Geofeedia, "Raw intelligence data points captured from social media allow you to weave a story together, based on many data points, to make informed recommendations and decisions."
An August 2015 "business case concept" justification for Geofeedia's use by San Diego police says "the Department seeks an automated tool to collect, aggregate and analyze location-based, open and multiple-source social media activities."
Adds the document, "Through automated collection and analytic tools for social media, analysts and investigators can formulate sound intelligence, and effectively and safely use Department resources to respond to threats and acts of violence."
A September 15, 2015, email to police officials from George Brister, manager of governance and strategic planning of San Diego's department of information technology, says the city's Information Technology Business Leadership Group "approved the Geofeedia business case," adding, "I will get you the signed approval within a few days, but you are good to proceed with the procurement process."
According to an August 24, 2015, report by assistant police chief Al Guaderrama, "$25,000 has been allocated in the Department's FY16 Operating Budget for the initial purchase of this technology. Annual renewal costs will be included in the Department's Operating Budget."