Community Investigations

The Louisville Metro Police Department’s growing use of social media monitoring software — shielded from the public until recently — has some city legislators calling for transparency.

Metro Council members from both political parties are calling on police officials to publicly explain the scope of their online surveillance and to create a policy governing the program’s use to ensure accountability. They say they will hold hearings to review the program.

Some council members also want an examination of the city’s purchasing policy that allowed police to buy the surveillance technology without public review.

A WFPL News investigation earlier this month found the police department has spent nearly $140,000 in recent years on software that can track and compile data on millions of internet users. The police program can catalog up to 9.5 million social media postings and a limitless supply of individual profiles.

The effort comes with little oversight and is cloaked in ambiguity. There’s no police policy guiding how the department uses the software, who they watch or what becomes of the data they collect.

Department officials declined multiple interview requests to discuss their use of SnapTrends, an Austin, Texas-based company that offers “location-based social insights” that provide a “the full story of every social conversation,” according to its website.

The use of such software is not unique to Louisville police. Agencies across the country are spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on similar programs.

But the mass surveillance of social media users raises concerns among privacy experts and civil liberty advocates. And since WFPL News first revealed the existence of the local program earlier this month, Metro Council members are speaking out.

Councilwoman Jessica Green, a District 1 Democrat, applauds the department’s adoption of the technology but is demanding transparency in how it’s used.

“The people and the elected officials need to know what is going on in the city we live in,” she said. “That is not happening, and that is a problem.”

Green said she considers herself an advocate for police use of emerging technologies. She’s pushed for police body cameras and a gunshot detection system.

Still, she said police use of technology must be guided by policy.

“Where is the accountability?” she said.

Louisville Metro Police headquarters Jacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Louisville Metro Police headquarters

Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, a District 5 Democrat, said that policy should be in public view.

“For transparency’s sake,” she said.

Councilwoman Angela Leet, a District 7 Republican, said setting a policy can help officers avoid misuse of surveillance programs.

“We need policy on what’s being done,” she said. “We can’t let it be a political tool, or a targeting tool or a tool to stereotype people.”

With no policy, Green, Hamilton and Leet all said there are no guidelines to prevent profiling or to ensure against overreach.

Councilman Bill Hollander, chair of the council’s majority Democratic caucus, said the public needs to know “much more” about the police department’s use of social media monitoring software.

“Having a policy which says how it can — and most importantly, cannot — be used by a government agency is very important,” he said.

Hollander also pointed out recent reports that SnapTrends had its access to certain data cut off by Twitter. The relationships were severed just days after a similar company, GeoFeedia, had its access to data slashed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram after the ACLU reported it marketed its service as a way to monitor activists.

Clear governing policy is considered a key element in police use of technology.

Recommendations made by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which Louisville Metro Police officials have praised and publicly adopted, stress that the implementation of any technology “be built on a defined policy framework with its purposes and goals clearly delineated.”

Such policy should be written in collaboration with the public to address privacy issues and the impact data collection could have on public trust, according to the task force’s final report.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky is convening with department officials next week to discuss their use of social media monitoring, according to a spokeswoman for the group.

A Questionable Purchase

An exemption in the city’s purchasing policy allowed the police department to procure the surveillance software without Metro Council review.

Department officials consider the SnapTrends service a subscription, which doesn’t require purchase through a standard competitive bidding process.

City policy states that any purchase exceeding $20,000 must be made using a Professional Service Contract. The department made four payments to SnapTrends ranging from $19,500 to $53,000, according to invoices obtained by WFPL News via an open records request.

“That doesn’t seem legitimate to me,” said Leet, vice chair of the council’s budget committee. She said the department used a loophole in city policy to avoid council review. “I question the level of transparency,” Leet said.

Councilman Kelly Downard, a District 16 Republican, said it’s “disconcerting” that the department would consider the surveillance software a subscription and bypass council review.

“It means you can almost call anything a subscription and not get approval from anybody,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

An invoice from SnapTrends to LMPD for $53,000.

An invoice from SnapTrends to LMPD for $53,000.

Council review, he said, can help shed light on law enforcement activities and provide the transparency that’s critical in a healthy relationship with the public.

For months, the department has given regular updates to the council regarding the upcoming purchase of a gunshot detection system. Green said the purchase of social media monitoring software should get a comparable public examination.

“Why did they just get to select [a vendor] and we not know anything about them at all?” she said. “I’ll need explanation on that.”

Leet made similar comparisons. She said police officials are usually open with pleas for technology, like body cameras and the gunshot detection system.

“I’m a little shocked,” she said.

A Push For Detail

Downard said he expects the Metro Council to immediately invite police department officials to explain their agreement with SnapTrends and their use of social media monitoring software.

“To just find out what’s going and on let the public know what’s going on,” he said.

He expects police will get a “fair shake,” too, as the head of the council’s public safety committee is David James, a former police officer and police union president.

James, a District 6 Democrat, said he would invite officials to the committee for a discussion. Earlier this month, he told WFPL News that social media monitoring is an important tool for the police department and dismissed the need for a policy governing its use, questioning why police need more restrictions than the public.

Green said she too looks forward to learning more about the department’s use of SnapTrends.

“People deserve to know more,” she said.

Through a spokesman, the LMPD major in charge of the program declined an interview to discuss the department’s use of the software.

The police department also declined an open records request seeking all social media postings archived by police from March 2014 to August 2016, as well as records of correspondence with SnapTrends. The department cited an exemption in Kentucky’s open records law that allows records to be withheld if their disclosure would expose a vulnerability in preventing or protecting against a terrorist act.

WFPL News has appealed that decision to the state’s attorney general.

Jacob Ryan is the Metro Affairs reporter for WFPL.