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Louisville Police Defend Surveillance Effort, Will Meet With ACLU

Louisville Metro Police headquarters

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky wants to know more about the Louisville Metro Police Department's use of social media monitoring software.

The advocacy group scheduled a meeting with police officials for Thursday to discuss the department's controversial surveillance effort, according to the group's spokeswoman.

The meeting will come just days after the police department took to Facebook to offer a lengthy defense of the program. Not keeping tabs on social media, the department wrote Friday evening, "would be irresponsible for an agency charged with providing safety to the public."

That program has drawn criticism since a WFPL News investigation revealed the police department has spent nearly $140,000 in recent years on software that can catalog up to 9.5 million social media postings and a limitless supply of individual profiles.

The acquisition of the surveillance software came outside of public view. The department does not have a policy to guide how officers use the software, who they watch and what becomes of the data they collect, according to documents obtained by WFPL News under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

In response, members of the Metro Council have demanded transparency from the police department.

Councilman Bill Hollander, chair of the 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 in an interview last week.

Department officials have for weeks refused 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 the company's website.

On Monday, LMPD did not respond to multiple requests seeking an interview.

The Facebook post -- made at 5:30 p.m. on Friday -- reads in part that "LMPD has been transparent to the media about our use of social media monitoring tools."

"We wouldn't describe our efforts as massive yet we would call them effective," it reads.

"LMPD investigators have been able to identify and mitigate threats to events" through the surveillance program, the post also reads. Police did not offer specifics as to what threats the program has helped them address.

Concerns Remain

The LMPD Facebook post did not address concerns raised by council members and the ACLU of Kentucky about the department's lack of a policy guiding use of the social media monitoring program.

Amber Duke, spokeswoman for the group, called that "troubling" in an interview earlier this month. She said the widespread surveillance of social media by police can lead to the collection and storage of “innocent people’s personal data."

“Social media is, among other things, a driver for political conversation and activism,” she said. “Constitutionally protected speech shouldn’t make one a target for surveillance.”

Hollander 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.

Over the weekend, after LMPD posted its defense to Facebook, Hollander tweeted a report from the U.S. Department of Justice that stresses the need for policy in law enforcement adoption of social media tactics.

Recommendations made by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which Louisville Metro Police officials have praised and publicly adopted, say the implementation of any technology should “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.

Loophole in Purchasing Policy

The Facebook post from LMPD also did not address Metro Council members' concerns that department officials used a broad interpretation of city purchasing policy to procure the software without a public review by the council.

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 Angela Leet, vice chair of the council’s budget committee, in an interview last week. She said the department used a "loophole" in city policy to avoid council review.

“I question the level of transparency," she said.

Council members have also called for police officials to brief the public on their surveillance effort. No hearings have been scheduled.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.