A report from The Stranger today accuses the Seattle Police Department of violating the law and infringing on citizens’ privacy by purchasing social media monitoring software in secret.
In 2013, SPD bought Geofeedia software, which provides location-based surveillance of social media posts, for $14,125, according to the report. Seattle’s Municipal Code requires police to disclose plans to acquire new technology to City Council and receive approval. The department did not disclose its purchase of the software.
Here is The Stranger’s take on the Geofeedia purchase:
Given the opportunity to use this new surveillance tool, the SPD faced a choice.
If the department wanted to use Geofeedia, it could inform the public about what exactly it is, why it’s important for crime-fighting in the 21st century, and how officers planned to use the data it gathered.
Call that option A.
Or, as relations between communities of color and police reached crisis points and Black Lives Matter protests gripped the country, it could quietly purchase the software for $14,125, begin monitoring the social media accounts of Seattleites, and not tell anyone.
We’ll call this option B.
The choice should have been clear.
Seattle police told The Stranger the department is no longer using Geofeedia and acknowledged they should have disclosed the purchase.
The Geofeedia controversy is the latest example of tension between technology-informed policing and privacy.
In 2013, the Seattle City Council discovered SPD had acquired drones without their approval three years prior. When the news broke, outraged protestors hijacked a meeting to discuss the SPD’s use of drones in surveillance and emergency situations.
“I’m sorry, I just want to say this is frickin’ ridiculous,” the lead protestor shouted at the meeting. “Seattle police do not have the authority to surveil on people. This is the same police department that shot a 70-year-old black man in his home.”
In response, the department began working on a new privacy program to build public trust, under a directive from Mayor Ed Murray. The city organized a team made up of public officials from different sectors and formed an external Privacy Advisory Committee to provide guidance. The program had a “soft launch” late last year but won’t be fully implemented until the end of 2017.
The SPD has also faced criticism over its relationship with Nextdoor, an online social network for neighborhoods. Police use the platform to disseminate information and posts have informed investigations in the past. The department also uses a real-time visual data platform and historic data software to detect anomalies.
Seattle can be seen as a microcosm for nationwide privacy and high-tech policing issues. SPD represents a city with a booming technology industry and is quick to adopt new tools to execute police work. It is also a city struggling with income inequality and a vocal liberal wing that is becoming increasingly skeptical of police. It’s difficult for public policy, law enforcement, and public opinion to keep pace with technology’s rapid evolution.