DENVER (CBS4)– With a past controversy in mind, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a records request with the city of Denver on Thursday, asking to obtain information about the Denver Police Department’s purchase and use of software that enables it to monitor social media activity.
The software, according to a report published last month by The Daily Dot, is Geofeedia, marketed as a way for law enforcement to simultaneously track social media posts generated from within a certain geographical area, like a protest or gathering.
The report states Denver police purchased the software for $30,000 using confiscated funds—an acquisition that received Denver Police Chief Robert White’s approval but did not require consent from city council and was kept away from public scrutiny.
For Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Denver, that police are using such software harkens back to a time when officers were found to be recording the license plate numbers of people who attended a mosque or a protest and used that information to build files on them. It became known as the “spy files” controversy.
In 2003, after investigating DPD’s surveillance tactics and discovering the department was maintaining files on thousands of citizens, for instance, participating in Amnesty International events, Silverstein says the ALCU sued. In settling the lawsuit, he says the city agreed to stop monitoring law-abiding citizens expressing their views, unless in the case such activity involved the reasonable suspicion a crime was taking place.
With Geofeedia, Silverstein believes the department has the technology to quietly go back on its word.
“Is this a proper law enforcement activity and does it have the potential to chill First Amendment rights? We think somebody might be more hesitant to attend a rally, to go to a demonstration, to sign a petition if they know that doing so is going to make them a target of police attention.” Silverstein said. “We just don’t know how the Denver Police Department is using or intends to use this software,” Silverstein said.
In its request, the ACLU asked to see the department’s policies governing the use of Geofeedia and other intelligence gathering activities, if such policies exist, its training materials for the software and a full list of search terms officers use in the program.
In response to the inquiry, the Denver Department of Public Safety sent CBS4 the following statement: This office received the request from the ACLU at 9:15 this morning and we are in the process of identifying records responsive to the request.
The Denver Police Department utilizes the cloud based platform to identify open source posts that may assist with the prevention of violent acts and to assist with identifying criminal activity. The platform also allows the department the ability to gain an awareness on events which could have an impact on Public Safety.