Only naive people are surprised…..
It was below freezing in Chicago on December 12, 2017 when a 23-year-old man was fatally shot in the abdomen while standing on the sidewalk. In the days following the victim’s death, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) gathered information about the victim on social media. Documents obtained by OneZero indicate that the CPD also went one step further, collecting social media content from individuals who were publicly mourning and grieving for the loss of the 23-year-old man. “I can’t stop crying…” one of the posts collected by the CPD reads, “why would this happen.”
Hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained via FOIA requests by the ACLU of Illinois and the Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago-based police transparency and accountability nonprofit, reveals for the first time how the CPD surveils the social media accounts of victims of gun violence, as well as their friends and family members. Though the surveillance is conducted in an effort to gather further information about shootings, police officers also gather public social media content from individuals who apparently have little or nothing to do with the crime. The documents span 12 nonconsecutive months from November 2017 through July 2019.
The newly revealed documents, in conjunction with the CPD’s history of using disputed predictive policing models, outline how the CPD is gathering information from potentially innocent and already traumatized individuals.
Nathan Sheard, the associate director of community organizing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that law enforcement surveillance of already marginalized communities presents troubling implications. “It’s notable that the police department, instead of working with the victims of these crimes — the people who would have the greatest incentive to solve the case — or getting any consent for this practice, are surreptitiously surveilling victims of crimes,” Sheard says. “These are victims, not perpetrators.”
The social media logs reviewed by OneZero were created by the CPD’s Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) officers, who are typically tasked with collecting information from publicly available data. An OSINT officer may, for example, search Facebook or Twitter for accounts and posts related to an open case.
The OSINT logs examined by OneZero pertain exclusively to incidents of gun violence. Though police data indicates the number of shootings in the city is at a 4-year low in 2019, Chicago consistently has one of the highest rates of fatal shootings in the country. Each of these logs contain a consistent series of details such as the date, time, and location of the shooting, whether the incident was a homicide, and in some cases, assertions about whether or not the victim was a suspected or “documented” gang member.
The CPD’s social media policy, as outlined by a January 2016 document obtained by the ACLU of Illinois through a FOIA request request and reviewed by OneZero, states that “social media is a valuable investigative tool when seeking evidence or information about” several areas of police work, including “gang participation and relation” and “photos or videos of a crime posted by a participant or observer.” The policy further states that officers “utilizing a social media outlet as an investigative tool will… only use publicly available open source material.”
“I can’t stop crying…” one of the posts collected by the CPD reads, “why would this happen.”
Such surveillance has become routine for police departments across the country. According to Freddy Martinez, Director of Lucy Parsons Labs, “People who have been the victims of violent crimes are surveilled at a higher rate” in Chicago. Martinez points to the CPD’s Strategic Subject List(SSL): a computer-generated model that is used to predict which specific individuals are more likely to commit or be victimized by crime. (Though CPD has used the SSL since 2012, critics contend that the list is not effectivefor crime prevention.) Among the factors weighed by SSL is the “number of times” a person has been “the victim of a shooting incident.”
Martinez says the OSINT surveillance of victims is “consistent with CPD’s other surveillance models, but whether or not it’s appropriate is another question.”
OneZero’s analysis of the CPD’s social media surveillance logs from November and December of 2017 found over 250 individual OSINT surveillance entries, with nearly half of those entries containing links to social media accounts. Most of the social media information gathered by the CPD came from Facebook, but logs also include links to Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts.
Some surveillance log entries contain notes that explicitly reference the relationship between the victim and the individual being surveilled. For example, some of the OSINT officer notes label content as “Roommates FB Page” and “Posts from friends.” In many of the logs, the relationship between the victim and the individual surveilled was not stated.
Some documents indicate the OSINT officers take what appears to be a broad and overly-permissive attitude when collecting logs, sometimes scooping up content from individuals who may have no clear relationship to the violence at all. Such notes read: “possible witnesses,” “possible social media for victim,” and “possible relative.” In a OneZero analysis of 12 months worth of CPD’s OSINT records, approximately two records with an unredacted note mentioned that the item had come from a “possible offender” or “offender.”
Meanwhile, content from family members of victims often gets picked up. An OSINT log for an individual who was shot and killed in December 2017 included a Facebook post belonging to the victim’s father. The post indicates that the father had just learned his son had been killed. “My heart is heavy right now,” the post, which includes a photo of the victim begins. “Got a call to find out they took my son life today…”
A separate log regarding another shooting includes a screencap of two public Facebook posts apparently made by the victim’s significant other, expressing relief and gratitude that their partner was still alive. These Facebook posts also include partially redacted photos, one of which appears to show the victim in a hospital bed. “Soon you will be with me in our lil apartment cooling with no worries,” one of the posts reads.
In some cases, the OSINT logs contain screencaps of Facebook posts and subsequent comments. An entry from late 2017 shows that police captured a over a dozen Facebook posts and comments from people mourning the death of a victim.
OneZero identified 31 people including victims and others whose public Facebook posts or comments were captured in the CPD’s OSINT surveillance between November of 2017 and July of 2019. More than a dozen of them were contacted for this article, though none agreed to provide comment.
The CPD did not provide complete logs from between 2017 and 2019, and did not respond to a list of questions for this story.
The documents reviewed by OneZero reveal for the first time that the CPD uses social media to surveil victims of gun violence as well as individuals who know the victims.
Additional documents obtained through FOIA and reviewed by OneZeroalso shed further light on CPD’s partnerships with third-party social media data mining firms. Invoices indicate that the CPD spent more than $1.25 million on Dunami — a social media surveillance software made by PathAR LLC — between 2014 and 2018.
In February of this year, the ACLU of Illinois called on the CPD to cease its use of Dunami to collect information on the residents of the city. “This invasive program should be suspended immediately until there is time for full, public airing of the reach, power, and use of the tool,” Police Practices Project Director for the ACLU of Illinois, Karen Sheley, said at the time. In response, the CPD released a statement that read, in part, “Like every law enforcement agency in the country, the Chicago Police Department references open source and public-facing social media platforms to safeguard the city against potential threats and criminal activity as that is what is required in today’s digital age. We understand and support constitutional protections of personal privacy and work to ensure that all of our operating policies are in strict accordance with state and federal law.”
PathAR claims Dunami can analyze social media for given topics selected by the user in order to identify people who are influencing or contributing to that topic. The product, which the CIA invested in, is used by the FBI, the Defense Department, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The CPD and Chicago Public Schools have been using Dunami to monitor public school students “for signs of violence and gang membership” according to a 2019 ProPublica report. A 2016 article from Reveal noted that Dunami and other softwares like it “mine Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media to determine networks of association, centers of influence, and potential signs of radicalization.”
CPD did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether or not it is using Dunami to surveil victims of gun violence.
Chicago-based human rights lawyer Jerry Boyle tells OneZero that revelations about the police department’s surveillance of victims will exacerbate tensions between law enforcement and residents of the city. Surveilling victims and others who know them “certainly doesn’t build trust in the police department, which in turn reduces the quality of the police’s intelligence,” says Boyle.
Boyle adds that such surveillance “is just devastating” for victims and their loved ones. “This is no way to treat traumatized people. It’s just wrong.”
The OSINT surveillance of victims by the CPD also highlights broader concerns about how police departments confront gang violence.
CPD’s apparent emphasis on gang affiliation in the OSINT logs calls into question whether the CPD was using information from the so-called Chicago gang database. That database drew significant public outcry last year for its racist methodology, and has since been banned for use. These concerns were later underscored in an April 2019 report by Chicago’s office of inspector general.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Sheard argues that lawmakers and social media platforms should consider the ill effects of surveillance practices on communities. “There’s a lot to think about regarding the responsibility [that] platforms have as they become more ubiquitous and essential mechanisms of communication,” Sheard says, “and also the responsibility that our lawmakers have to make sure that we’re not creating patterns and practices that will exacerbate and continue these historical biases that we’ve seen harm already marginalized communities.”