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Dangers of Data Gathering by Los Angeles Police Department

by Ed Lyon

For decades, officers with California’s Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) have utilized Field Information Cards (“FIC”) for reference whenever they interact with citizens. This contact may take the form of a traffic stop whether or not a citation is issued, obtaining a witness statement, or incidental to an arrest.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported fewer than half of the FICs filled out by officers were associated with arrests. But statistical data show a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic people who LAPD officers have interacted with have a FIC filled out than do white people.

The FIC is a government document. As all government documents do, it has an identifying number, being 15.43.00. A previous version had an additional space for an interviewee’s social security number (“SSN”) with a disclaimer falsely stating that a federal law requires an SSN be disclosed upon request. The latest and current version was introduced in January 2020. The SSN section carried over onto the latest iteration along with a new section for an officer to list the interviewee’s e-mail and social media accounts like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Compared to the doors an agency can open with a citizen’s SSN, knowing that person’s social media accounts seem pretty innocuous at first glance. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, one of the deputy directors for the Brennan Center for Justice, fervently believes otherwise and for good cause as it turns out. Former LAPD chief Charlie Beck described a person’s social media accounts as “Similar to a nickname or an alias, a person’s online persona or identity used for social media can be highly beneficial to investigations,” he once wrote.

Current LAPD chief Michael Moore has tasked department supervisors to review officer’s FICs to ensure they were completely filled out and stressed to officers that FIC data is critically important toward “investigations, arrests and prosecutions.”

Levinson-Waldman stated “There are real dangers about police having all of this social media identifying information at their fingertips.” She pointed out all that information “was probably stored in a database that could be used for a wide range of purposes.”

There are, in fact, four different databases involved with storing and using all of this data.

And yes, there are wide and varying purposes for all of it from life-saving to pernicious, depending on its ultimate use. Geofeedia was the first database LAPD partnered with. It is a private monitoring firm targeting social media sites. Its claim to fame is watching Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) protests and similar left-wing events. The company’s one-sided monitoring practices were so egregious Facebook and Twitter terminated its access to their sites once it became known how LAPD was using it.

LAPD segued from Geofeedia to Dataminr between 2016-2017. Dataminr’s “success stories” included uncovering “the first images of people at” a BLM Los Angeles (“BLMLA”) protest outside of a jail and “a giant blowup statue of Trump.” In addition, LAPD tasked Dataminr to monitor George Floyd protests organized by BLM in 2020.

LAPD’s third database partner is Media Sonar, another digital social monitoring firm with various ties to police agencies. Media Sonar is regarded as the most intrusive and inclusive of the three. Its own “Digital Footprint” ad disturbingly states “You will gain access to: A full digital snapshot of an individual’s online presence including all related personas and connections; 300 data sources with 2 billion records compiled from Public records; Business listings; Marketing lists; Phone directories; Crowd sourced data. You will be able to: Easily gather a full digital view using the digital footprint function, develop and save a full picture of a threat’s digital identity and presence. Gain unexpected leads. Learn associated usernames, emails and additional information.”

LAPD’s fourth, most pernicious database is called Palantir. It is an in-house tool. Judging from its so-far disclosed capabilities it could easily be a forerunner to The Terminator’s Sky Net. This system contains arrest records, DMV records [See: CLN, September, 2021, p.49], FIC data, license plate reader data, and “other sources” as well as combining information from the other three databases. Palantir can identify and locate persons of interest by utilizing these tools and even associates of these surveillance targets.

LAPD personnel create and employ bogus online personas as part of their investigations, likely with the aid of Palantir. LAPD’s field manual condones this, stating it “does not constitute online undercover activity.” It is certainly physically safer for cops than going into lockups, posing as prisoners to obtain information and confessions, not an uncommon practice for California cops. [See: PLN, May, 2019, p.30]

The Brennan Center sent surveys to 40 other city police departments concerning FICs. From those that responded, none of them indicated that social media data was collected. The longer LAPD is allowed to utilize this practice, the greater the likelihood other departments will follow its lead.  

Sources: brennancenter.org, theguaradian.com, techdirt.com

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