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NYPD Has Spent Millions of Dollars on Social Media Analysis Tools

by Jo Ellen Nott

The New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) has spent millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money buying products from tech company Voyager Labs that claims it can analyze social media to track and even predict crimes. The NYPD’s 2018 contract with Voyager Labs, worth nearly $9 million, involved the purchase of tools like Voyager Analytics and Genesis, with a subsequent $1.6 million renewal in 2021.

The department’s overall policy on social media analysis tools, outlined in a 2021 report, emphasizes their use for investigations and public safety concerns, analyzing both publicly available and privacy-protected information. The nonprofit group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (“STOP”), has called the use of these tools “invasive” and “alarming.”

Voyager Labs is one of many companies that pitch its predictive software as being able to target future criminal activity based on an individual’s past behavior and online activity. However, mathematicians since 2016 have proven that these technologies are flawed, and the algorithms are too simple to effectively predict crime. In 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department found that the tech was inconsistent and racially biased after conducting an internal audit on Operation Laser, one of its data driven programs.

The NYPD has stated that it does not use Voyager Labs’ predictive tools, telling online media outlet Insider the department only uses the software to monitor suspects for crimes such as gun violence, terrorism, and human trafficking. A NYPD spokesman said, “The Department uses these types of technologies to aid in active investigations and does not use features that would be described as predictive of future criminality.”

On January 12, 2023, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, sued Voyager Labs, claiming that the tech company created thousands of fake accounts to scrape data from more than 600,000 users. Voyager Labs has denied these allegations and is awaiting a court decision.

The use of social media analytics by law enforcement is a controversial issue, with some arguing that it is a necessary tool for preventing crime and others arguing that it is a violation of privacy rights. A legal concern exists regarding preemptive information gathering without subpoenas or warrants. William Owen, Communications Director at STOP, has also highlighted the lack of public information on these contracts which make FOIA requests necessary.   

 

Sources: Insider, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, The Verge, Vice

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