The State Police Are Watching Your Social Media

The New York State Police bought social media monitoring programs that have violated platforms’ policies and been used to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters.

Chris Gelardi   ·   January 13, 2023
Governor Kathy Hochul is ramping up the 3,500-officer State Police department's internet surveillance programs. | Photo: New York State Police

FOR AT LEAST eight years, the New York State Police have bought an array of programs that sift through mass quantities of social media information — including from companies with access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram’s internal data — contracts obtained by New York Focus show. The documents shed new light on the State Police’s internet surveillance efforts, which Governor Kathy Hochul has sought to ramp up.

The records also illustrate a cat and mouse game the State Police have played with social media companies, which have tried to prevent law enforcement from using their platforms for surveillance. After the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that companies — including two to which the State Police had subscribed — had used internal social media data to track Black Lives Matter protesters, the three major platforms cut off their access. The State Police then entered into contracts — likely still in effect — with at least two different companies, one of which has found ways to monitor racial justice demonstrators without getting booted from Twitter’s data stream.

The other company pulls information from over 100 other websites, allowing authorities to create detailed profiles in order to “know everything” about individuals they’re interested in.

The State Police documents — obtained via several public records requests — come to the fore as half a dozen state legislators and several advocacy organizations launched a wide-ranging legislative campaign this week aimed at making New York a “surveillance sanctuary state.” It’s Albany’s biggest push yet to rein in invasive law enforcement technology — though none of the bills the campaign introduced target the social media monitoring tools, illustrating the extent to which the development of surveillance tech is outpacing legislative oversight.

There are currently no state laws limiting police’s use of the internet monitoring tools for privacy reasons. According to State Police spokesperson Beau Duffy, the programs are “restricted to members who have been specially trained and are closely supervised.”

“These software services and tools have helped eliminate individuals from suspicion and convict others for serious crimes,” Duffy said. “We follow all laws when it comes to gathering evidence to ensure anything relevant to a prosecution can withstand legal scrutiny and be used in court.”

Watchdogs are skeptical. “When these systems are used without any public accountability or oversight, it really raises my alarm bells,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “You can use [this technology] for everything from tracking social media mentions of your own organization for PR purposes to conducting widespread warrantless surveillance.”

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The 3,500-officer State Police department, responsible for both patrol duties and statewide investigations, has recently entered the market for various other high-dollar gadgets, like a $200,000 military-grade armored truck, an underwater camera robot, and a fleet of miniature surveillance drones. As New York Focus has reported, the department is beefing up its surveillance and intelligence capabilities, purchasing powerful cell phone hacking tools from an Israeli cyber-intelligence firm amid an influx in funding for digital monitoring.

“We’re catching up to what technology can and cannot do to make sure we’re protecting the civil liberties of individuals,” said Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, who, as part of the anti-surveillance campaign, has introduced legislation to ban government entities from gathering biometric data.

“We also can think right now about what protections we’ll need in the future,” said Kristen Gonzalez, chair of the state Senate’s technology committee, who is sponsoring a bill to modernize New York’s four-decade-old Personal Privacy Protection Law. “If we want a strong democracy, we need to ensure that our [Fourth Amendment] rights are being maintained.”

THE STATE POLICE’S social media monitoring tool purchases track with an upheaval in the industry.

In November 2015 — the earliest date for which New York Focus obtained records — the department entered into 10-month subscriptions with Geofeedia and Media Sonar, companies founded a decade ago with funding from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel. When they signed the contracts, both companies had agreements with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that gave them access to various versions of the platforms’ internal data streams of public posts. The companies then used the exclusive data to feed insights to their customers, from marketing analysts to news outlets to police departments.

Geofeedia in particular specialized in honing in on posts that users had geotagged to offer customers real-time location information for the social media activity they were tracking. The company also had a feature allowing police to integrate undercover social media accounts into its monitoring capabilities. As New York Focus has reported, the State Police use fake accounts to monitor social media and conduct investigations.

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In September 2016, the State Police renewed their Geofeedia and Media Sonar contracts. Later that same month, the ACLU revealed that both companies had been marketing their products as a way to monitor Black Lives Matter protests. Media Sonar kept a running list of “high frequency social media terms that can help identify … threats to public safety” — among them, “policebrutality,” “blacklivesmatter,” “fuckthesystem,” “dontshoot,” and “mikebrown.” Meanwhile, Geofeedia propositioned law enforcement by touting its products as a way to “stay one step ahead of the rioters” after high-profile police killings.

The surveillance of racial justice protesters is one of the driving forces behind the Albany legislative campaign. “Oftentimes, [police] claim to want to look at extremists,” said González-Rojas, referencing Hochul’s expansion of the State Police’s social media monitoring resources after a mass shooting by a white supremacist in Buffalo last year. “But it actually turns the tables and investigates people like activists associating with Black Lives Matter or Muslim Americans going about their day.”

Geofeedia and Media Sonar’s protest monitoring violated the major social media companies’ policies, which prohibit using their platforms to conduct “surveillance”; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram promptly severed the companies’ access to their internal data. After that, the State Police didn’t renew their contract with Geofeedia, records show. The department kept Media Sonar around for one more year, while at the same time trying out another social media monitoring company: Dataminr.

Dataminr has become a giant in the social media monitoring industry, not least because it has managed to preserve access to Twitter’s data stream — even though it has assisted police in closely monitoring Black Lives Matter and other protest movements. Investigations by The Intercept have revealed that Dataminr helped cops pinpoint protester whereabouts during the demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd, and that the company has relied on prejudicial tropes to inform alerts that it sends to police and other customers.

Twitter has justified continuing to grant Dataminr access to its internal data by pointing out that, unlike Geofeedia and Media Sonar, Dataminr conducts its own research of social media trends, sending out “news alerts” to customers rather than having them perform their own analyses. Civil liberties advocates assert that that’s a distinction without a difference. Others have speculated that the real reason Twitter has favored Dataminr is because, in addition to the CIA, the monitoring company counts Twitter itself as one of its early investors.

FINALLY, THREE YEARS into its Dataminr subscription, the State Police purchased a fourth monitoring tool: ShadowDragon, which rapidly scans some 120 websites, including social media sites, to provide police and other customers with in-depth profiles of individuals, according to another Intercept investigation.

“I want to know everything about the suspect: Where do they get their coffee, where do they get their gas, where’s their electric bill, who’s their mom, who’s their dad?” ShadowDragon’s founder, Daniel Clemens, has said.

ShadowDragon also claims that its software is able to anticipate crime and violence — placing it in a tech category known as “predictive policing,” which ethicists and watchdogs have warned can be inaccurate and biased.

The records obtained by New York Focus show that the State Police’s Dataminr and ShadowDragon subscriptions were active as recently as last year. When asked whether the department currently contracts with any of the four companies listed in the records, Duffy, the spokesperson, only said that it no longer uses Geofeedia or Media Sonar.

It’s unclear whether the State Police have used other internet monitoring companies; a public records request New York Focus sent to the department for all social media surveillance tool contracts has been pending since June. (Because agencies often buy surveillance tools through intermediary companies, the true extent of surveillance tech purchases can be hidden from public lists of government contracts.) Duffy confirmed that the department has never used Snaptrends, another company that was cut off from social media platforms’ data streams in 2016. And public records requests for contracts with surveillance tech companies NSO Group and X1 yielded no results.

Altogether, the State Police have spent at least $480,000 on Geofeedia, Media Sonar, Dataminr, and ShadowDragon since late 2015.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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