New reporting from The Guardian and the Brennan Center for Justice finds that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has directed its officers to collect social media handles from every civilian they interview, even those not arrested or accused of a crime.
The law enforcement agency uses “physical field interview cards,” to collect information from civilians that might aid in an investigation, and in 2015 added a line for “social media accounts.” Michel Moore, the current police chief, said in a newly obtained memo that collecting social media handles was critical for use “investigations, arrests, and prosecutions,” and that interview cards would be reviewed by supervisors for completion.
Social media surveillance — Privacy advocates worry that this type of mass collection of social media information could be used in coordination with other existing surveillance tools to monitor and intimidate protestors advocating against police violence. The LAPD has previously used social media monitoring tools Geofeedia and Dataminr to track protests as they started. Once obtained, social media handles could theoretically be stored for a multitude of uses.
Social media was touted in its infancy as a way to support activist movements, like the Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s that were coordinated in part on Twitter. But somewhat ironically, that same information can help law enforcement monitor and thwart the same movements. The website LA Taco has reported that the LAPD used Dataminr to monitor last year’s Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd.
In Los Angeles, Black and Latino residents are disproportionately stopped and asked to fill out cards, which could reinforce racist over-policing in communities of color. Police have previously used information like Facebook “likes” to make false gang allegations against people. You can see why some, then, might be reasonably scared from attending or coordinating a protest online, to say nothing of the escalation that often occurs when police and protestors clash.
Just say no — Maybe the best idea when a police officer asks for your social media handles is to say, “yes officer, my Twitter handle is @gobblemyknob.” You don’t legally have to comply with such a demand — ask if you’re free to go, and if the answer is no, ask to speak to a lawyer and say nothing else. Most of the time officers expect civilians to be so intimidated as to comply with whatever they’re asking, and if you push back they’ll give up. But that’s also perhaps a privileged view — if you’re Black and you don’t answer the question the consequences may be different.
Either way, it’s the job of law enforcement to conduct investigations into criminal activity. If they can’t do it without obtaining your social media information, that’s its problem.