DENVER (CBS4) – Denver police have stopped using a pricey intelligence-gathering tool that drew criticism from free speech advocates.
Marketing material for the software Geofeedia says the program can be used to monitor social media posts in real time, from a single location, such as an event or protest.
Denver police paid $30,000 and signed a one-year contract with the company last year, but say the technology is no longer useful and have asked for their money back.
The department used Geofeedia to look for threats to public safety, said Lt. William Mitchell, of the department’s intelligence section.
“If we used search terms, it was things like ‘bomb,’ or ‘guns,’ or ‘kill,’ those type of words that were inflammatory, that would lead you to believe somebody wanted to create some type of violence,” Mitchell said.
According to Mitchell, 30 officers had access to the program — the maximum number of individual log ins Geofeedia allowed.
Geofeedia, and police departments’ use of it, drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union chapters in northern California and Colorado. An article published in the Daily Dot first revealed that Denver police had quietly purchased the surveillance software, raising questions about how it was being used, and prompting fears it could be used to invade privacy and threaten First Amendment rights. Shortly after, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cut Geofeedia’s access.
The software was no longer useful to Denver police. On Oct. 21, 2016, Assistant City Attorney Brent Eisen sent a letter to Geofeedia stating the company had “breached its Purchasing Order” and asking for a credit from Geofeedia in the amount of $17,500.
“We determined at that point it wasn’t a very good tool anymore because it really eliminated a large portion of the information you might capture,” Mitchell said. “We were not getting the bang for our buck, so at that point, we wanted to cut the losses and just move on from it.”
In the time Denver police were using the software, from mid-May to mid-October 2016, Mitchell is not aware of any case in which the tool helped officers thwart a potential crime. Mitchell says police did not use the software to target specific groups or individuals.
But the ALCU of Colorado’s Mark Silverstein says citizens cannot be sure the program was never used in such a way because police denied its open records requests for a list of search terms and keywords entered by officer when they were using Geofeedia. The ACLU also takes issue with the way police acquired the tool.
“It was done completely out of the public eye,” Silverstein said. “We have advocated at the ACLU that when law enforcement is thinking of acquiring a new tool that can be used for surveillance, there should be some kind of public discussion about it.”
Other software exists that can perform capabilities similar to that of Geofeedia. Mitchell says the department is not currently looking for a replacement program. But that could change, says Silverstein, and if it does, he wants the consideration of any future similar purchase brought before city council first.
“What we’d really like to see us some acknowledgement that the acquisition of something like this is something that ought to be discussed in public, before the acquisition, before police adopt a new surveillance tool,” Silverstein said.
As of last week, the city says it has not heard back from Geofeedia, or gotten the money it asked for back. The software was paid for using police confiscated funds.