Chris Gelardi


The State Police Are Watching Your Social Media

Read the full piece in New York Focus

For at least eight years, the New York State Police have bought an array of programs that sift through mass quantities of social media information — including from companies with access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram’s internal data — contracts obtained by New York Focus show. The documents shed new light on the State Police’s internet surveillance efforts, which Governor Kathy Hochul has sought to ramp up.

The records also illustrate a cat and mouse game the State Police have played with social media companies, which have tried to prevent law enforcement from using their platforms for surveillance. After the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that companies — including two to which the State Police had subscribed — had used internal social media data to track Black Lives Matter protesters, the three major platforms cut off their access. The State Police then entered into contracts — likely still in effect — with at least two different companies, one of which has found ways to monitor racial justice demonstrators without getting booted from Twitter’s data stream.

The other company pulls information from over 100 other websites, allowing authorities to create detailed profiles in order to “know everything” about individuals they’re interested in.

The State Police documents — obtained via several public records requests — come to the fore as half a dozen state legislators and several advocacy organizations launched a wide-ranging legislative campaign this week aimed at making New York a “surveillance sanctuary state.” It’s Albany’s biggest push yet to rein in invasive law enforcement technology — though none of the bills the campaign introduced target the social media monitoring tools, illustrating the extent to which the development of surveillance tech is outpacing legislative oversight.

There are currently no state laws limiting police’s use of the internet monitoring tools for privacy reasons. According to State Police spokesperson Beau Duffy, the programs are “restricted to members who have been specially trained and are closely supervised.”

“These software services and tools have helped eliminate individuals from suspicion and convict others for serious crimes,” Duffy said. “We follow all laws when it comes to gathering evidence to ensure anything relevant to a prosecution can withstand legal scrutiny and be used in court.”

Watchdogs are skeptical. “When these systems are used without any public accountability or oversight, it really raises my alarm bells,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “You can use [this technology] for everything from tracking social media mentions of your own organization for PR purposes to conducting widespread warrantless surveillance.”

The 3,500-officer State Police department, responsible for both patrol duties and statewide investigations, has recently entered the market for various other high-dollar gadgets, like a $200,000 military-grade armored truck, an underwater camera robot, and a fleet of miniature surveillance drones. As New York Focus has reported, the department is beefing up its surveillance and intelligence capabilities, purchasing powerful cell phone hacking tools from an Israeli cyber-intelligence firm amid an influx in funding for digital monitoring.

“We’re catching up to what technology can and cannot do to make sure we’re protecting the civil liberties of individuals,” said Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, who, as part of the anti-surveillance campaign, has introduced legislation to ban government entities from gathering biometric data.

“We also can think right now about what protections we’ll need in the future,” said Kristen Gonzalez, chair of the state Senate’s technology committee, who is sponsoring a bill to modernize New York’s four-decade-old Personal Privacy Protection Law. “If we want a strong democracy, we need to ensure that our [Fourth Amendment] rights are being maintained.”

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