Instagram photos, Facebook posts, YouTube videos and tweets are all part of the brave, if sometimes confusing, new world of social media.
And it’s probably not surprising that there is now a cop on the corner of that world to monitor those messages for any signs of illegal behavior.
Racine entered that still-gray area of social monitoring this week when it gave the city Police Department the OK to negotiate a sole-source procurement contract with SnapTrends, of Austin, Texas, to listen in on all that social media activity in our area and give the department an extra eye on what’s going on.
Does it work? Apparently very well. During a trial period of SnapTrends service, police gained information from a rap video posted on SoundCloud, a music-sharing website that helped solve a case involving the gruesome murder of a Racine teenager.
That alone would seem to justify an expenditure of $4,200 — the estimate for what the SnapTrend monitoring would cost.
But there are still some question marks that hang over the head of social-monitoring services. At first blush, we see no threat to Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The information and communication that is being monitored is out there in the public domain for anyone to look at and evaluate.
SnapTrends’ system just makes it easier to pinpoint certain geographic area — like the City of Racine — and use keywords and other screening techniques to find social comments that might be useful to police in their investigations.
If criminals are dumb enough to boast about their illegal activities on the Web or in the cloud, they are just dropping a trail of crumbs that will lead police to their doorstep.
That’s all well and good.
Racine Police Chief Art Howell told aldermen before they approved the contract negotiation that the department has no “intent to abuse the software.
“I can almost assure you that there is enough stuff going on in this town that we don’t have idle time to surf the Internet,” Howell said.
Still, Howell and other police officials have declined to provide specifics on how the department might use the SnapTrends software program, saying “the publication of investigative strategies and tactics could compromise future investigations.”
That is a little worrisome. The question then becomes who polices the police?
It’s one thing to use software to scan local social media for publicly posted information. It’s another to use enhanced electronic techniques to geolocate the source of posts or tweets — then constitutional issues may come into play.
There also could be issues about archiving records from such monitoring. How long will records be stored? Are they public records that can be reviewed by the public and the press? Can SnapTrends sell this information to others?
We’re all for a program that helps police solve crimes and gives the department a new tool to help detect crime and put criminals behind bars. But as this contract is negotiated, the public deserves to know a little bit more about how it will work, how the department will use it to make sure that the rights of citizens are protected against any overzealous spying that goes beyond just monitoring what’s out there in the public domain.