Baltimore residents react to news of a secret Baltimore police surveillance project. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
Imagine this scenario: A violent disturbance — or worse yet, a terrorist attack — takes place during a parade in Baltimore or Towson or Laurel. A suspect is identified, and a couple of days later, the media reports that he had made a series of posts in social media in the days leading up to the event using threatening language to allude to what would happen. The public would almost certainly demand to know why the police hadn't picked up on those warning signs in advance, right?
As such, we can't fault the several area police departments that have contracted with a private company that monitors and stores public social media posts. Failing to keep an eye on what people post for global consumption would seem like 21st century policing malpractice. Nonetheless, the tactic still must be employed carefully and under strict, transparent safeguards. That's particularly true for the Baltimore Police Department, which is struggling to regain the public trust after the Department of Justice's report showing it committed routine violations of residents' civil rights and the revelation that it had been conducting high-tech aerial surveillance without telling anyone, up to and including the mayor.
Based on a Public Information Act request, The Sun's Alison Knezevich reported Tuesday that police in Baltimore City and Laurel, and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties have contracted with the Chicago-based firm Geofeedia, which collects and maps social media posts on a variety of platforms for law enforcement agencies and other clients. As with the surveillance plane, Baltimore City's use of it had not previously been publicly disclosed, and the police department's contract did not go before the Board of Estimates because it is below the threshold amount that would trigger the need for that body's approval.
The intention behind the program may be benign, but there is the potential for abuse. The same technology that allows police to discover people making threatening statements about a festival or protest could also be used to find and catalog criticism of the mayor. The idea doesn't seem so far-fetched, given the May court ruling in a civil case finding that former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold had improperly ordered county police to compile dossiers on two of his perceived political enemies. The fact that individual pieces of information in the dossiers were created for valid governmental purposes did not make their collection legitimate for Mr. Leopold's political purposes.
A ready database of geo-coded social media posts could allow for that kind of abuse on a much more massive scale. As the Leopold case shows, the assertion by defenders of the program that only those engaged in illegal activity have anything to fear from it is simply not true. The rights of those who have committed no crimes are also at risk unless these programs are conducted according to well publicized and enforced standards.
We understand the need for a degree of secrecy in police work. No one would argue, for example, that the target of a proper, judicially-authorized wiretap should be warned that his or her conversations are being recorded. But the mass collection and storage of data on people about whom police have no reasonable suspicion is different, particularly in cases where it is not obvious that it's taking place. Police don't need to give all the details of their use of such technology, but they should make public the parameters of that use. Cops may not advertise in advance where they're setting up speed traps, for example, but they do publicize the fact that they use radar to monitor for speeders. Police could post notices on their websites of the types of wide-scale electronic surveillance they perform, the standards governing its use and their policies regarding data collection without hindering their effectiveness.
Of course, as the Leopold case shows, policies (or, in that instance, laws) are only effective if they're followed. Oversight is needed — perhaps through a model like the privacy ombudsmen employed by Canadian provinces, or perhaps through expanded duties for the Civilian Review Board. In Baltimore, especially, the public is unlikely to have much confidence in the idea that the department will police itself. The city and Department of Justice are negotiating a consent decree and setting up ongoing monitoring of reforms in response to the recent federal investigation. That makes this the best opportunity we're likely to have to ensure that these new, high-tech surveillance tools not only protect the community but also the civil rights of every individual within it.