Louisville Metro Police officials continue to offer up few details about their use of online social media surveillance software.
A WFPL News investigation earlier this month revealed the department has spent nearly $140,000 in recent years for a program that can track and catalog up to 9.5 million social media postings and a limitless supply of individual profiles.
The department has operated the system without a guiding policy to dictate how the software is used, who is watched and what becomes of information collected.
The surveillance effort has drawn concern from city legislators and civil liberty advocates.
Police have provided little detail about the use of the program. The purchase of the software came without public review, and for weeks officials refused requests for interviews to discuss the surveillance program.
On Friday, however, police officials announced they were working to address some of those concerns and met with WFPL News for an interview.
Policy Being Drafted
In an interview Friday at police headquarters in downtown Louisville, assistant chief Robert Schroeder said a guiding policy is in the works. He declined to discuss details, saying it was too early in the process.
“We really do need a policy,” he acknowledged, echoing demands of a number of Metro Council members and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. Schroeder characterized the attention paid to the surveillance effort in recent weeks as “sensationalism.”
Kate Miller, advocacy director for ACLU-Kentucky, said citizens have the right to hold government officials accountable.
“We just want to ensure people have the opportunity to do that and there are transparent processes in place,” she said.
Miller met with police on Thursday to discuss their online surveillance effort. Following the meeting, she praised police for taking steps to craft a policy directing use of the software. She also pointed out there is a level of ambiguity that remains with just how the surveillance software is being used.
Schroeder, who oversees the use of technology for the department, said officers have been able to prevent crimes and thwart public safety threats by keeping tabs on social media. He declined to provide specific instances or evidence of such incidents.
The department doesn’t keep track of arrests that come from social media surveillance, he said.
When asked whether the police department keeps a database of individual user profiles or social media postings, Schroeder said he didn’t know.
In a follow up email, however, a department spokeswoman said “profile information” has been stored “in the past” when “there was a criminal nexus involved.” She declined to answer how often this occurs, how long the profiles are stored or if there are currently any profiled stored.
Schroeder said he doesn’t know what type of access Snaptrends has to the information collected by LMPD.
“I can’t speak to Snaptrends’ internal capabilities,” he said.
Schroeder said he’s also unaware of what specific social media channels are monitored by the LMPD through the use of Snaptrends.
Recent media reports show 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.
Schroeder said this is leading department officials to discuss the value of the program.
“Obviously, if we pay for a service and we no longer get that service, we have to consider what our options are,” he said. “If the service can’t provide what it says, then no, it won’t continue.”
Officials with Snaptrends have yet to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Council Questions Purchase
Some Metro Council members take specific issue with how the police department procured their surveillance software.
An exemption in the city’s purchasing policy allowed the police department to purchase 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.
Councilwoman Angela Leet, a District 7 Republican, questioned the legitimacy of the purchase in an interview last week and said department officials used a “loophole” to avoid council review.
Schroeder dismissed that accusation, saying the department never intended to hide the purchase.
LMPD’s agreement with Snaptrends began in 2014, just days after a group of young people caused several acts of vandalism and violence downtown, starting at Waterfront Park. Chief Steve Conrad called it “truly mob-like behavior.”
Shortly after that, Schroeder said, the department was contacted by a sales representative for Snaptrends.
“They had the solution, it looked good, so we got with our purchasing department on how we could purchase it and ended up subscribing to their service,” he said. “It just looked like a solid product.”
Now, however, Schroeder doesn’t seem so sure. Department officials, he said, had some “grand ideas” when they first began using Snaptrends — among them, that it could help wrangle murder witnesses.
“It never worked out,” he said.
Top police officials will meet with the council’s public safety committee in December to provide a year-end update and to discuss their use of surveillance technology.