Tech Now + Beyond

Hey activists, police might be monitoring your social media accounts

Facebook’s interactions with police and other law enforcement have come under scrutiny lately after a Baltimore woman, Korryn Gaines publicly broadcast her armed standoff with the police in videos on Instagram and Facebook. During the several-hour standoff, police submitted a request to Facebook to take down Gaines’ accounts, because her supporters were encouraging her to resist the officers’ requests to surrender peacefully. An hour later Facebook temporarily removed the accounts. Unfortunately, the standoff still proved fatal for Gaines.

Participants in encounters with the police often use Facebook’s new live video feature as evidence of how those encounters with the police occur. When people publish these videos on Facebook it draws attention to Facebook’s actions when law enforcement officers make requests from the website. There are two requests that investigators can make of Facebook. Officers can request information or request that an account be blocked, as it was the case with Gaines. Those who take issue with police violence are particularly vocal about the possibility of Facebook removing user information, describing it as censorship.

In Gaines’ case, Facebook claims that it took down the account to try to protect the safety of Gaines, her child and the officers involved. Facebook restored her account after her death, but only some of the standoff videos remained on her profile. A Facebook spokesperson claimed that employees removed some of the videos because they violated Facebook’s community standards.

The issue with Facebook’s law enforcement policy is that the website only has one method, (called the law enforcement portal) for requesting information or an account takedown. So while Facebook received 833 requests from police in emergency situations, and complied with the requests 73% of the time in the latter half of 2015, there is no way to know how many of those requests were information requests, and how many were for content removal.

Facebook owns Instagram, so their “Information for Law Enforcement” page also includes similar standards. Their emergency standards specify that law enforcement officials may submit requests for information “In responding to a matter involving imminent harm to a child or risk of death or serious physical injury to any person.”

Twitter is notoriously good at defending users’ right to free speech, even when that content that they are posting is threatening and prejudiced. So it seems unlikely that they would remove content in the same way that Facebook did. In 2011, when the WikiLeaks scandal occurred, Twitter fought a secret subpoena from the government against individuals on their site, notifying them that police would search their accounts within 10 days.

However there is also evidence that Twitter has cooperated in giving government officials information that they have requested through a company Dataminr, which they partially own and which has access to all public tweets. Many people were outraged to find that local law enforcement offices would sometimes buy into companies like Dataminr to track users of popular protest hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. Although law enforcement officials did not target individuals and has not silenced individuals, as it did in the case of Facebook, it still allows law enforcement officers to monitor large numbers of social media users at once.

Snapchat has also developed a law enforcement policy and releases information on its involvement with law enforcement in a “transparency report” every 6 months. Usually government officials were looking for identifying information about users. But if the police arrive with a search warrant the social media company also needs to share content that users have shared on their site. In the past police have also requested that Snapchat take down content from their app.

Snapchat receives requests from both US and international governments, and in 2015 complied with 92% of the US requests. In the latest report, released in March 2016, the number of requests had grown from 403 requests in 2015 to 862 requests. For 80% of the requests, Snapchat provided some sort of information, and in 70% of the emergency situations they provided information to investigators. In the latest transparency report Snapchat revealed that investigators had not made any requests to take down content from their site, as there had been in Facebook’s case.

By Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger is currently pursuing a BA at Wellesley College where she studies English and Spanish. One of her (too many) goals this summer is to make the list of musicals she wants to listen to shorter.