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New York State Police Are Ramping Up Social Media Surveillance

Open records requests reveal that the New York State Police (“NYSP”) have been spending money on electronic communication surveillance tools, specifically to gather information from social media and related sites.

According to records requests for expenditures relating to surveillance products purchased by the NYSP, the department has spent at least $480,000 on programs which collect data from social media websites and others to track activities and “build profiles” on people, most of whom never have and never will commit a crime. The records also show how this program has escalated since Governor Kathy Hochul has taken office.

The NYSP would have New York citizens believe this is a responsibly managed program that furthers the interests of justice and keeps them safe. “These software services and tools have helped eliminate individuals from suspicion and convict others for serious crimes,” said Beau Duffy, an NYSP spokesperson. “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.”

“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.”

Several companies that provide these services to law enforcement have come and gone in the intervening period, often going out of business after some kind of scandal. Two such companies, Geofeedia and Media Sonar once had access to the “fire hose,” the raw data from public postings on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But after the ACLU revealed that their services had been used to monitor Black Lives Matter protesters, the social media companies cut off their access, citing terms of service violations. Yet, new companies have sprung up offering similar services.

“Oftentimes, police claim to want to look at extremists,” said Jessica González-Rojas, a New York assemblyperson who has introduced anti-surveillance legislation. “But it actually turns the tables and investigates people like activists associating with Black Lives Matter or Muslim Americans going about their day.”

The founder of ShadowDragon, Daniel Clemens, said how extensive his company’s tools are, “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?”

Some New York legislators have stated how this approach erodes freedom and democracy and are introducing legislation to make New York a “surveillance sanctuary state.” Kristen Gonzalez is the chair of the state’s Senate technology committee and is sponsoring a bill to overhaul the state’s four-decade-old Personal Privacy Protection Law.

“We also can think about what protections we will need in the future,” said Gonzalez. “If we want a strong democracy, we need to ensure that our Fourth Amendment rights are being maintained.” 




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