This summer, we asked over 50 police departments to tell us if they have any rules for police officers who use fake accounts on Facebook to friend people of interest and monitor what they post. If our sample is indicative of national trends, very few police departments have policies for going undercover on social media, meaning that the practice is almost wholly unregulated.
Of the over 40 police departments that responded to our Freedom of Information request, just 13 had policies that mention covert social media investigations. All of the departments’ responses are noted here in an interactive map. At the very least, police departments should be able to tell us what their policies are when it comes to fake friending us on Facebook, but a number of departments sent us a version of this as a response: “Any information revealing surveillance techniques, tactical operation, or intelligence procedures is exempt from public disclosure.”
Those that have a policy usually keep it pretty simple: A police officer needs to get a supervisor’s approval before creating an undercover account.
There was one exception: Officers at the Knoxville Police Department in Tennessee only need to get an account approved if they plan to send messages with it; if they’re just using it to spy on somebody, no permission is needed.
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Some of the departments had slightly more rigorous policies. Once their account is approved by a supervisor, police officers who want to do undercover Facebook stalking in Mountain View, Calif., Minneapolis and Seattle, for example, have to keep logs of their accounts. The same is true in Chicago, where the Cook County Sheriff’s office provides a slideshow presentation to its deputies instructing them on how to create fake accounts and assemble dossiers on persons of interest.
Meanwhile, at police departments in New York City and Austin, Texas, officers not only have to get permission from a supervisor, the supervisor has to write a memo that explains why the account is being created and includes the photo that will be used as the account’s avatar. (According to news reports, officers at the NYPD like to pose as hot girls.)
“It really is crazy what people broadcast,” said an Austin police sergeant who leads a team of officers who use undercover accounts on social media. The Austin Police Department has one of the more detailed policies, with an explicit requirement that criminal activity must be suspected to justify the creation of an online alias.
Facebook policies prohibit the creation of fake accounts by law enforcement, but officers are making them anyway. Some police departments that have boasted about their investigations on social media don’t have policies in place to govern those efforts. The San Francisco Police Department has an “Instagram officer” but its police manual only addresses officers’ personal use of social media. An officer from the Memphis Police Department used an undercover account to friend and spy on Black Lives Matter activists, but the department did not respond to multiple requests about whether it has a relevant policy.
A few police departments that we spoke with, including the Miami Police Department in Florida and the New Castle County Police Department in Delaware, said that online aliases could be created at the discretion of individual police officers.
“That seems really problematic and ripe for abuse and misuse,” said Rachel Waldman-Levinson, a scholar at the Brennan Center for Media Justice who wrote a law review article on the legal and policy dilemmas posed by law enforcement’s use of social media for policing. “There needs to be a standard and oversight for what accounts officers create, who they friend, and how long they monitor them.”
Lacking such standard or guidelines, it’s impossible to evaluate how effective these tactics are, and whether they’re being used to target more groups than others. Black Lives Matter activists have been targeted by local law enforcement and by the federal government since at least 2015. And in Philadelphia, social media-driven investigations of gang activity means entire networks of black and brown kids have been criminalized based off tweets, photos and videos police deem “gang-related.”
See all of the cities we queried and their responses here. The pink markers are departments with policies. The red markers are for police departments with no policies or who refused to disclose any information, while the blue markers represent the departments who snubbed us. We’ll update the map if we hear back from more police departments.