Legal Aid Demands Info on NYC’s Use of Social Monitoring

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Legal Aid Society has sued the Manhattan district attorney for refusing to divulge whether he buys information from social-media companies as a way to track civil rights protesters and conduct other “social monitoring.”

Though the district attorney’s office is the only defendant in the Article 78 Petition, the nonprofit Legal Aid Society specifically asks for information on “the extent to which the state of New York and New York City employ the services of Geofedia, Inc., Media Sonar Technologies Inc., and X1 Discover, Inc.”

“These companies collect data from social media websites and applications and then sell that data to government law-enforcement agencies,” the complaint continues.

District Attorney Cyrus Vance gave a Glomar response to Legal Aid’s request under Freedom of Information Law: It refused to say whether the requested data even existed.

According to the Dec. 8 complaint in New York County Supreme Court: “Geofeedia has, according to the ACLU, signed agreements with more than 500 law enforcement agencies. In response to invasion-of-privacy concerns, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have stated that they have cut off Geofeedia’s access to their information.”

Geofeedia allegedly has financial support from by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. The ACLU has accused it of targeting black political activists as “overt threats” while monitoring protests for law enforcement agencies.

The complaint continues: “Media Sonar provides similar services to law enforcement and has run into similar controversies. Twitter and Instagram banned Media Sonar after learning of reports that law enforcement agencies had used Media Sonar to monitor citizens attending Black Lives Matter events and other public protests.”

And, citing X1 Discover’s own website, Legal Aid says: “X1’s ‘Social Discovery’ product ‘aggregates comprehensive social media content and web-based data’ and ‘enables powerful, proactive monitoring capabilities with automated email alerts for social media, geostreaming and website collections.’”

New York City police have been widely reported to run one of the largest and most-effective “counterterror” operations in the nation — rivaling or surpassing federal efforts.

Represented by house attorney Jerome Greco, Legal Aid says: “Whether law enforcement’s use of tools from Social Media Monitoring Companies chills the exercise of fundamental rights on the Internet, such as the right to speak freely and to assemble peaceably, is a question of profound significance.

“Before that debate can even occur, however, the public needs to know — at a high level — how its government is using tools created by Social Media Monitoring Companies.”

It’s common knowledge, Legal Aid says, that law enforcement monitor social media. “Just as the government could not refuse to discuss its use of fingerprinting or ballistic testing, and presumably could not deny its use of Google, Respondent cannot hide basic, high-level information about how it monitors social media,” the complaint states.

Legal Aid calls Vance’s Glomar response arbitrary and capricious, and an abuse of discretion.

It wants to see the documents, and a log explaining which documents the district attorney’s office has withheld, and an explanation of the exemption or statutory provision that allows each one.

The District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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