by Kevin Bliss
The widespread use of social media to conduct unregulated, warrantless, long-term surveillance of individuals has become prevalent among the nation’s police departments. Officers have created Facebook accounts with false identities to follow targeted individuals without consideration for any clear investigative outcome.
Civil liberties groups question department policies allowing the unregulated practice of “undercover friending” as a dragnet surveillance technique. Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center for Media Justice wrote an article in the Howard Law Journal addressing potential hazards of this practice. Not only is it conducive to abuse of authority but also to discrimination and racial profiling
Jim Cooke, reporter for The Root, said it sent 50 Freedom of Information Act Requests to police departments across the nation pertaining to their policies governing the use of social media in investigative work. The Root found that most departments do not even address investigative work via the use of social media. For the most part, their entire policy surrounding social media pertains to appropriate dress and conduct of employees so as not to give the department a bad image. “That seems really problematic and ripe for abuse and misuse,” stated Levinson-Waldman. “Social media can be so incredibly contextual,” she stated, adding that even the misinterpretation of song lyrics could possibly lead to incarceration.
Cooke reports that only 13 departments of the 43 that responded to the information requests have internal rules governing the use of social media in undercover work. On a positive note, in Mountain View, California, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle, an officer must ask permission from his supervisor before obtaining a social media account for investigative work and must keep a detailed log of his or her use of the account. These accounts cannot be used as a dragnet surveillance system, and the requesting officer must have a clear objective for a targeted individual.
Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department opined that the point of undercover work is not data mining; instead, it should have a focus and work toward a particular investigative outcome.
Recently, Facebook created a rule requiring that law enforcement agencies use their authentic identity when utilizing the company’s services. Facebook reportedly is not pleased with departments’ constant misrepresentation to other users through the use of fake accounts.
Although the latest U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not include online dragnet surveillance under the protections of the Fourth Amendment and therefore require a search warrant, this issue is currently being litigated as similar to GPS trackers and access to smartphone records where searches are illegal when conducted without a warrant.
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