ACLU of Colorado raises concerns over Denver Police Department's use of social media surveillance

Posted at 12:08 PM, Oct 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-07 00:43:02-04

DENVER – The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) is seeking documents from the Denver Police Department that give insight into the department’s use of a social media monitoring tool that can be used to scrape information from regular citizens not under investigation for a crime.

The ACLU filed a public records request with DPD Thursday morning on the heels of several September reports detailing a tool called Geofeedia, which can be used to scrape social media posts and information from a selected area by law enforcement and national security agencies.

The software can troll through posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Periscope, Flickr and several other social media outlets, then intercept and record them for the user.


A report from The Daily Dot published last month says DPD spent at least $30,000 in money seized through civil forfeiture to buy 30 subscriptions to the software in May.

Insight into DPD’s purchase was obtained through records requests by The Daily Dot, but the department denied requests for records detailing exactly what information was being scraped and how exactly the software worked.

Lt. Bill Mitchell, who is the primary liaison for DPD in its relationship with Geofeedia, wrote in the request to use money from the department’s Confiscation Fund that the software “has the ability to identify criminal suspects and their actions as they post them to social media” and cited the “Superbowl [sic] Parade, Martin Luther King Marade [sic], 420 Rally, Parade of Lights, etc.” as potential events where the software could be used.

Geofeedia’s website says users can “stay ahead of topics, trends and situations with proactive insights and alerts from real-time location-based intelligence.” It lists Geist, PSx, Tier 1 USA, Consilad and Berkshire Media as partners.


The ACLU’s records request asks for copies of all records relating to the purchase and usage of Geofeedia by the department; its communication with The Daily Dot reporter who wrote the story; the names of each officer who obtained a subscription to Geofeedia; the department’s current intelligence policy; a list of search terms used on Geofeedia by officers and several other bits of information regarding DPD’s relationship with the company.

The ACLU says it has “concerns” that DPD is again monitoring free speech, which it agreed to stop doing following the settlement of a lawsuit in 2003 brought by the ACLU over the department’s “Spy Files” it kept on area activists.

The department changed its intelligence policy after the suit to say any information collected on any person or group must “directly relate” to criminal activity and that there must be a “reasonable suspicion” that person or group is involved in criminal activity.

The ACLU also pointed to a recent report by The Associated Press that found a Denver officer had violated database usage policies by searching out the number of a nurse he met during a sexual assault investigation as a misuse of databases.

That report also detailed a Mancos marshal who had co-workers run license plates of every white truck they saw after he suspected his girlfriend was cheating on him with a man in a white truck.

Per the Colorado Open Records Act, DPD will have three days to respond to the ACLU’s request – seven if it is judged there are “extenuating circumstances” involved.

“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,” the ACLU said in a statement.

"It should be open to public review and it's something we should be briefed about in the safety committee, which I chair," said Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez. 

Denver Department of Public Safety Records Administrator Mary Dulacki told Denver7 her office received the records request from the ACLU at 9:15 a.m. and that it is in the process of finding responsive documents.

“The Denver Police Department utilizes the cloud based platform to identify open source posts that may assist with the prevention of violent acts and to assist with identifying criminal activity.  The platform also allows the department the ability to gain an awareness on events which could have an impact on Public Safety,” Dulacki said in a statement to Denver7 regarding Geofeedia.

The Washington Post says police departments in Baltimore, Seattle and Dallas have used similar software before, and that the ACLU of California found at least 13 agencies had bought or were already using Geofeedia.



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