Beginning two years ago, but unbeknownst to the public—until now—intelligence officers inside the Seattle Police Department headquarters on Third Avenue acquired the ability to watch your social media posts in real time, using software that can place those posts on a digital map.
This tracking software, which the SPD purchased in October 2014 from a CIA-funded company called Geofeedia, is designed to tell officers where you posted from and what you said. It can also show hundreds of other tweets, Instagrams, and other social media posts from anyone else in the vicinity, and then file all of that information into one big database.
The secret purchase of the Geofeedia software—for $14,125—violated a Seattle law requiring a city official outside of the police department to be notified of such acquisitions, the SPD admitted this week in response to questions from The Stranger. The secret use of the software may have also violated the city's 2013 surveillance ordinance, which requires "any City department intending to acquire surveillance equipment" to "obtain City Council approval."
City council member Lorena González, a former civil rights attorney who now leads police oversight for the council, conferred with the ACLU of Washington after The Stranger told her about the police department's quiet Geofeedia acquisition. "I am concerned about allegations that SPD's acquisition and use of Geofeedia is in violation of Seattle's surveillance law," González said.
SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb admitted to The Stranger on September 23 that the Geofeedia purchase "should have been cleared and it should have been done in accordance with the Seattle Municipal Code." He offered no excuse, but added three days later: "We are no longer using Geofeedia."
Whitcomb did not respond to a question about whether the department's use of the software violated the 2013 surveillance ordinance. In addition, despite multiple attempts, The Stranger was unable to get the SPD or the city to say when, exactly, the police stopped using the tracking software.
However, in an e-mail sent just last month, Whitcomb spoke about the SPD's use of Geofeedia in the present tense. "We use Geofeedia software to support ongoing criminal investigations," Whitcomb wrote. "At no point in time have we used Geofeedia as a surveillance tool to track people engaged in constitutionally protected First Amendment activities. Period."
But in a text received at press time, another SPD official, Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey said the department is now using software from a firm called Babel Street "to support lawful criminal investigations." On its website, that company offers "situational awareness and intelligence solutions," including the ability to "geo-locate the origin of e-chatter."
The Seattle Police Department's relationship with Geofeedia dates back to August of 2014, when the company offered the police a powerful new tool: software that would allow them to engage in "perpetual monitoring" of social media posts. A pamphlet from the company suggested the SPD could use its product for "targeted surveillance," and other promotional materials emphasized the software's capabilities for tracking large events, including "protests," sports games, and natural disasters.
Geofeedia is a $24 million company backed by investments from the Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital arm, the Intercept reported in April. (Geofeedia did not respond to the Intercept's requests for comment about CIA funding.)
According to published reports, public records, and the company itself, Geofeedia is used by major corporations like McDonald's and police departments in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Austin. Earlier this year, the East Bay Express reported that Oakland police used the software to monitor Black Lives Matter protests from 2014 to 2015.
And at a tech expo last year, Geofeedia executive Lee Guthman boasted the software could measure "sentiment" and predict an eruption of violence at protests in Ferguson or Baltimore by analyzing social media posts, including correlating a positive and negative point score with certain phrases. For example, a negative score for "I'm gonna set off a bomb," versus a neutral score for "I photobombed my friend."
Given the opportunity to use this new surveillance tool, the SPD faced a choice.
If the department wanted to use Geofeedia, it could inform the public about what exactly it is, why it's important for crime-fighting in the 21st century, and how officers planned to use the data it gathered.
Call that option A.
Or, as relations between communities of color and police reached crisis points and Black Lives Matter protests gripped the country, it could quietly purchase the software for $14,125, begin monitoring the social media accounts of Seattleites, and not tell anyone.
We'll call this option B.
The choice should have been clear.
"I'm all for transparency," said police chief Kathleen O'Toole when she began leading the force in June of 2014, promising to turn away from old habits that sowed mistrust. "I hope the proof will be in the pudding."
Yet four months into O'Toole's tenure, the Seattle Police Department went with option B—the secret and illegal one. (In a text received at press time on September 27, O'Toole indicated she was aware of both The Stranger's reporting on these issues and the department's efforts to answer our questions. "I assure you," O'Toole said, "our commitment to transparency is genuine.")
In a way, the Geofeedia purchase was business as usual. Under previous chiefs, the SPD had repeatedly acquired new technologies, deployed them, and then apologized after Seattle residents—many of them fiercely protective of their privacy—voiced fears of surveillance run amok.
In 2012, the SPD showed off two newly purchased aerial drones outfitted with cameras. After an outcry, the department got rid of them.
In 2013, some 30 cameras were attached to utility poles along Alki Beach in West Seattle for alleged "port security" purposes. "That resulted in an additional uproar and another mea culpa tour," The Stranger reported at the time.
And then, later that year, the public became aware of a wireless mesh network in downtown Seattle—white boxes with antennas purchased from Aruba Networks that could quietly suck up cell-phone data. The department refused at first to answer questions about how the boxes were used. But six days after The Stranger exposed the network in a story, the SPD deactivated it, saying there ought to be a "vigorous public debate" before such technology was deployed.
After the drone controversy in 2013, the Seattle City Council passed a surveillance ordinance designed to put an end to this cycle. The ordinance requires Seattle police to seek authorization from the council before using new surveillance equipment, with an exemption for urgent circumstances in which police need to use the equipment on a "temporary basis" in a criminal matter—in other words, to stop serious in-process crimes from occurring.
But the SPD did not inform, much less seek approval from, the city council or the public about its deal with Geofeedia. The fact that we know about this deal at all is due only to documents obtained through public record requests by independent journalist Aaron Cantú—records shared with The Stranger.
As of early 2016, those records show, Jon Engstrom and Philip Wall, police officers in the SPD's intelligence unit, were the point persons for use of the software. (More installments of Geofeedia-related records are to be released in the coming weeks). Wall is described as the SPD's "geospatial social media expert." The e-mails also show a Geofeedia "enablement specialist" corresponding jovially with them, offering, in one instance, a link to a special collection of social media posts related to the Chinese president's visit to Seattle on September 22, 2015.
When The Stranger initially reached out to the SPD for comment, the department declined to answer further questions about its use of the software, such as: Is data that is collected by Geofeedia turned over to the city's intelligence auditor? What happens if the subject of a criminal investigation is near, or involved in, a protest? How is Geofeedia data used?
The city's chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, agrees with the SPD's more recent admission that, by contracting with Geofeedia without telling anyone, the department violated the Seattle Municipal Code. A 1999 ordinance that created the city's Department of Information Technology prohibits the acquisition of any new city technology by contract without his approval.
Mattmiller, Seattle's CTO since June 2014, was not informed about the Geofeedia purchase. "The purchase was not made in accordance with the Seattle municipal code," said Megan Coppersmith, his spokesperson.
And Council Member González, expanding on her concerns about the Geofeedia purchase possibly violating a separate city law, the 2013 surveillance ordinance, said: "It is critical to ensure that any use of social media monitoring software is narrowly tailored toward criminal investigations where reasonable suspicion already exists. Social media monitoring should not be used for generalized monitoring purposes or we run the risk of running afoul of civil liberties."
After reviewing the Geofeedia records, ACLU-WA Technology and Liberty Project director Shankar Narayan said that his group is concerned that in deploying Geofeedia, the department was collecting "the social media posts of many innocent people who may have nothing to do with an investigation."
Narayan continued: "City Council members should have been notified before this was purchased, so that it can be weighed whether this comports with Seattle's values."
The ACLU has discussed the need to strengthen the city's surveillance ordinance—"to make the definitions broader and more clear, give it teeth"—with members of the council, who may take up reforming the law once they've dealt with the city's budget this fall.
In the post–Edward Snowden age, activists, journalists, and many techies have all but given up on the idea that the government isn't collecting data on their every move by electronic means (especially their social media posts, which often aren't meant to be private in the first place).
"I'm genuinely not surprised," said Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, teacher, and Black Lives Matter organizer. "I'm sad. I'm tired... There are protests that aren't widely advertised online and SPD shows up in great numbers."
Still, she criticized the city council's oversight of Seattle police in recent years as "toothless."
I asked Oliver how she's changed her behavior in light of government surveillance and whether she uses encrypted communication tools.
She laughed. "No comment."