by Anthony W. Accurso
Public records requests have shed light on a program within the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) whose purpose is to collect information on people by surveilling their social media profiles and how this program is supported by a similar team at the FBI that provides CPD with fake online accounts for use in conducting the surveillance.
The documents (mostly emails) obtained from the CPD were the efforts of Transparency Chicago and the Policing in Chicago Research Group and detail CPD activity from May-June 2020 and November 2021. Readers will note that this first period was immediately following the murder of George Floyd and encompassed Black Lives Matter protests in the city.
Outlined in the documents were the efforts by CPD to identify a masked man who torched a police cruiser during a protest in the last days of May 2020. Officer Brian Campbell came across social media photos of the suspect with enough fidelity to identify that the word “PRETTY” was tattooed on the man’s neck. He used this to identify Timothy O’Donnell, a Chicago resident, as the masked man. Though Campbell didn’t specify his methods, the fact that his email to the Crime Prevention and Information Center was forwarded around the Social Media Exploitation (“SOMEX”) team indicates that he surveilled social media to make the identification.
“This is a great job! Awesome work,” wrote one sergeant in response who later added, “[t]his is what I was talking about using our SOMEX teams for.” So quickly did department leadership move to applaud his efforts that none of them raised the issue that Officer Campbell conducted this official function while off-duty, a clear violation of department regulations.
After O’Donnell was identified using social media, officers got a warrant for his home, where they located the mask he wore during the protests. He was arrested and initially charged with arson.
A 2021 report by Chicago’s Office of Inspector General would eventually reveal that CPD’s “response [to the protests] was chaotic and excessively violent, with officers variously hiding their badge numbers, turning off their body cameras, blasting people with pepper spray at close range, bantering about shooting people who were fleeing police in the head, and telling an arrestee that they would be raped in jail.”
O’Donnell was in a protest group that was “kettled” by CPD using patrol cars, and many protesters had damaged the vehicles in an apparent attempt to escape the kettle.
“He was a target, really simply, because he had a mask on his face,” said O’Donnell’s attorney, Michael Leonard. “This was about the guy in the Joker mask because he was seen in photos, and that’s sexy from a police standpoint.”
After nearly two years in custody, O’Donnell accepted a plea deal to the lesser charge of civil disorder — an anticlimactic result given the internal fervor the investigation generated among the SOMEX team. Yet, this case fits squarely in the police-as-victims narrative that CPD and other police jurisdictions often use to justify victimizing communities and committing rights violations.
While the SOMEX team’s original purpose seems to have been the identification of actionable intelligence from social media sources, the released documents reveal what SOMEX officers have done instead, according to The Intercept: “flag potential damage of police cars, investigate the social media connections of people who had made threats online, and cull videos for the department’s YouTube channel.”
Further reporting by The Intercept has shown that, around that time, “federal and local authorities were combing social sites for scraps of information, disseminating alarmist notices about ‘revolutionary anti-capitalist’ gatherings, suburban candlelight vigils, and children’s peace marches.”
Also around this time, FBI director Christopher Wray was blaming the agency’s failure to anticipate the January 6, 2020 infiltration on the U.S. Capitol building on the agency’s lack of authority to surveil social media.
“What we can’t do on social media is, without proper predication and an authorized purpose, just monitor ‘just in case’ on social media,” he told Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) during the summer of 2021.
“That is false,” said former FBI agent Michael German, also a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, who notes agents have been able to do such monitoring since 2002. Whenever they are criticized for failing to protect Americans,” continued German, “rather than allow an investigation of how they’re using or misusing the authorities they do have, FBI blames it on a lack of authority, because that makes it easier for a policy maker to say, ‘OK, we’ll give them new authority.’”
Clearly, such petitions are a ruse motivated by a desire for more power, as the documents show that the FBI’s own SOMEX team is willing to enable CPD to violate policy (and possibly the law) to conduct its online surveillance.
Many of the large social media platforms have rules explicitly prohibiting law enforcement from creating fake online profiles for surveillance purposes, and after publicity about CPD’s use of fake accounts was reported to Facebook, the company removed a multitude of accounts and openly admonished the department for its flagrant violations.
None of this negative attention has appeared to slow down CPD’s SOMEX team, however. Documentation shows that CPD officers can request the FBI provide “alias identities” for use in investigations, though the FBI requires CPD to use “uniquely generated” photos — presumably generated by an AI rather than stolen from an unsuspecting user’s social media account. Also, each profile assignment is given a unique “Confidential Alias Number,” ostensibly to track its use.
Only minor limitations appear to exist regarding CPD’s utilization of such accounts. They can “friend” targets and like posts under a broad range of conditions but must get written authorization from the FBI to interact with non-law-enforcement accounts.
The usefulness of these tactics is speculative at best, as surveilled groups are often aware that officers use fake profiles online.
“This is surveillance in the digital age,” said Matthew Guariglia, a historian and policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I can imagine one Chicago activist whose 12 Facebook friends are all different agencies’ undercover identities.”
Guariglia’s imagined scenario is not only likely, but rather, it is inevitable once the use of SOMEX units becomes widespread, especially in the absence of real oversight for these shadowy surveillance units.
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