Opinion: New York must say no to social media surveillance

With just three words – “Accept friend request” – covert cops can surveil your most private and unfiltered communications, putting youth of color at risk.

The “Stop Online Police Fake Accounts and Keep Everyone Safe” (STOP FAKES) Act would ban police from leveraging fake social media accounts to surveil New Yorkers.

The “Stop Online Police Fake Accounts and Keep Everyone Safe” (STOP FAKES) Act would ban police from leveraging fake social media accounts to surveil New Yorkers. Thomas Jackson, Stone via Getty Images

How often do you share your location, family photos and medical information with a police officer you’ve never met? Chances are, it’s more often than you think. Your social media accounts contain a trove of personal information about you. With every “friend” and “follow” request you accept, you risk a covert cop invading your privacy. The “Stop Online Police Fake Accounts and Keep Everyone Safe” (STOP FAKES) Act is first-of-its-kind legislation which would ban police from leveraging fake social media accounts to surveil New Yorkers.

Police have used social media infiltration to flag, surveil and arrest activists around the country, stifling freedom of speech and the right to protest. In 2016, Keedran Franklin, a 32-year-old Black Lives Matter organizer in Memphis, accepted the friend request of a mysterious “Bob Smith.” Franklin was subsequently barred from the mayor’s property and given escorts any time he entered City Hall. He later learned that “Bob Smith,” in whom he had placed sufficient trust to discuss protest plans, was a fiction created by undercover detective Tim Reynolds. “They had 22,000 pages of documents on me and the people around me,” said Franklin, who remains a regular target of arrest for his protesting activity.

With the repeal of Roe v. Wade, social media surveillance now also threatens abortion-seekers. Cops may masquerade as acquaintances of abortion-seekers to document private posts about reproductive health, or impersonate abortion providers to trick them into revealing their interest in reproductive care. Even in states like New York where abortion care remains protected, information obtained can easily be shared with anti-choice jurisdictions as part of inter-agency information sharing agreements. 

Along with protesters, abortion-seekers and other “people of interest,” children are especially vulnerable to digital dragnet surveillance. Young people are particularly likely to communicate online; almost half of U.S. teens said they were online “almost constantly,” according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. Teens’ digital interactions tend to be heavily context-dependent and are therefore prone to misinterpretation by law enforcement. 

This is particularly true for Black and brown youth, who are disproportionately surveilled by police. These teens use the Internet significantly more and have a larger cultural gap between them and law enforcement than their white peers. Song lyrics, memes and other cultural references from young people’s social media profiles are stripped of context and used by police to incriminate youth. According to Desmond Patton, an associate professor at Columbia University, this culture gap “open[s] up a window of gross misinterpretation that can lead to mass incarceration.” 

On the basis of simple, out-of-context social media posts, Black and brown children as young as 13 are being logged into secret gang databases, which are almost entirely composed of people of color – in 2019, white people made up only 1.1% of the NYPD’s gang database. These databases are then shared with prosecutors and can be used in massive gang sweeps that ruin young peoples’ lives. When youth of color grow up in heavily policed neighborhoods, they are too often punished for the crime of mere association.

One New York teen was jailed for over a year on Rikers Island for Facebook photos with neighbors and family who police claimed were in a gang. Another teen spent 22 months in jail after the Bronx 120 gang sweep based solely on his Facebook posts, music videos and the government’s interpretation of his wiretap.

For the past eight years, social media surveillance software companies such as Geofeedia, Dataminr and ShadowDragon have allowed New York State Police to automate surveillance of New Yorkers on an unprecedented scale. “I want to know everything about the suspect,” said ShadowDragon’s founder, Daniel Clemens. “Where do they get their coffee, where do they get their gas, where’s their electric bill, who’s their mom, who’s their dad?” 

Digital dragnet surveillance is widespread and dangerous, yet it continues to go unregulated. Although the NYPD claimed in a Department of Justice report to keep detailed records of its undercover accounts, the department refuses to provide any documentation of its social media surveillance policies or practices for public review.

Albany must ban police from leveraging fake social media accounts to surveil New Yorkers. The verdict is clear: New York legislators must say no to social media surveillance – and vote yes to STOP FAKES.

Liz Huang is a civil rights intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, and a junior studying political science and philosophy at Wellesley College. Zohran Mamdani is a democratic socialist Assembly Member representing Astoria and Long Island City. Cordell Cleare is a state Senator representing Harlem, Washington Heights and Morningside Heights, and the chair of the Senate Committee on Aging.

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