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Gelardi: The New York State Police are using social media monitoring programs

The Federal Trade Commission released rules on when and how social media influencers should disclose ads.
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The Federal Trade Commission released rules on when and how social media influencers should disclose ads.

For the last eight years, the New York State Police have been using an array of programs that sift through mass quantities of social media information including from Twitter and Facebook.

WSHU’s Charles Lane spoke with Chris Gelardi, an investigative reporter at New York Focus who obtained the documents about these programs.

WSHU: Chris, can you briefly tell us what technology the state police are using and what they're using it for.

CG: The documents that we got showed that the state police were using — over the past eight years — four different types of what I would call social media monitoring software. Data from Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, such as internal data streams of public posts and sending it to state police.

In the past, the programs have been used to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, but it can be used for any sort of thing.

WSHU: So you detail to companies, Geofeedia and Media Sonar, and they were at one point blocked by Twitter and Facebook. Is that correct? Why?

CG: They were given access to these internal data streams for these social media platforms obviously, with some caveats, one of them being that they weren't allowed to use it for “surveillance.” And it came out in 2016 that the ACLU uncovered that Geofeedia, Media Sonar and then a third company that the state police actually never used were using their access to the platform's data to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, which violated the platform's rules against surveillance. So the company has actually cut them off.

WSHU: What I found so interesting about your article is after these companies cut off the New York State Police, they found other companies to give them similar data. And so my question is, why is this concerning?

CG: Obviously civil liberties advocates and police reform advocates are all very concerned about this. And just last week, a slew of legislators introduced a bunch of legislation targeting police surveillance. About half a dozen legislators introduced, or they are in the process of introducing I think about eight pieces of legislation.

They're all targeting different facets of possible police intelligence gathering and police surveillance. But it's actually interesting that none of the bills would actually address this social media monitoring technology that we just uncovered last week.

WSHU: Without this oversight from the legislature, what is the New York State Police doing to monitor what they're doing? And what did they say about all of these concerns that people have?

CG: We know very little about the state police. You know, the NYPD is a huge institution, and everybody seems to rightfully center their attention on what the NYPD has in intelligence and surveillance capabilities. But the state police have a lot of intelligence, surveillance power, and are tasked with a lot of that kind of stuff. And they really don't get scrutinized for it. And whenever I've brought issues about this technology, or other technology and their use of it to them, they really just kind of try to reassure that they're not abusing it and respecting people's privacy, but without offering any specific steps that they're taking to implement their own internal oversight.

It's becoming more clear that not just the state police but also police around the state have a lot of technology that we don't know about. And we really need to know what those are in order to figure out what the best ways are to regulate them.

It should also be said that those powers are expanding especially under Governor Kathy Hohul. Last year in the state budget, she slipped in a lot of line items in the budget to expand, not just the state police's, but also police around the state, their social media monitoring budgets.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.