The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sued the Chicago Police Department on Wednesday to obtain records about a social media monitoring team that was launched amid last summer’s unrest.
The suit, filed in Cook County circuit court, seeks an order compelling the department to release the documents after officials refused to hand them over in response to public records requests.
“CPD’s record on respecting personal privacy is abysmal,” Ariana Bushweller, one of the attorneys representing the ACLU of Illinois said in a statement. “With that history, CPD must provide public records that answer basic questions about why the city is monitoring social media accounts, who has access to the information collected, and how the information is being used.”
Last August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Supt. David Brown announced that a 20-member task force had been assembled to monitor social media sites around the clock amid looting and other disturbances after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“This proactive monitoring will provide the crucial information our public safety agencies need in order to be aware of planned activity as early as possible and to enable them to respond quickly and appropriately,” Lightfoot said at the time.
She reiterated that position Thursday, arguing that social media provides a trove of information, but the mayor said she has ordered the department to monitor the information carefully.
“What we know is that there are a lot of crimes that are being described on social media,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that are happening on social media around protests and unrest.
“CPD has made a specific effort to only monitor open sources on social media,” she said. “Obviously, that’s something that I’ve emphasized. It’s important to us. We’ve got to do this in a way that doesn’t violate anybody’s expectation of privacy and constitutional rights. So I’ll be interested to see what the specific issue is that the ACLU is talking about … They have not contacted me or my office to my knowledge, so I can’t really offer more at this point.”
Colleen Connell, the executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, has warned that social media monitoring could suppress free speech and lead to “targeting based on protected speech, race, association and neighborhood.”
The ACLU requested a range of information about the program, including its purpose, details on how the information was being used and who had access to it. The organization also wanted to know whether the police department was getting help from state and federal agencies.
The task force was launched out of the department’s Crime Prevention and Information Center, one of the 79 “fusion centers” across the country established to promote information sharing among state, local, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU says city officials haven’t publicly stated whether the monitoring program is still in place, or whether police have used it “in connection with ongoing protests against racial injustice.”
The filing argues that law enforcement agencies have in the past “monitored and harassed groups and individuals for doing no more than peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
“This long history of surveillance has often targeted Black people and Black-led organizations for the purpose of disrupting advocacy against white supremacy and police violence against Black communities,” the lawsuit states, pointing to the monitoring of figures like Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
While the suit acknowledges that activists rely on popular social media platforms to organize and amplify their message, it claims that law enforcement spy on “First Amendment activity” of social media groups and accounts they find suspicious.
The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit against the police department in 2018. Following a settlement the following year, the ACLU released records showing the department had for years used social media monitoring software designed by Dunami, a company that has reportedly gotten funding from a venture capital firm used by the CIA and other national security agencies.
The latest suit stems from requests for public records the ACLU made under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Though police officials ultimately turned over most the requested documents, the department withheld all the requested social media records.
“Release of this record would immediately compromise the vulnerability assessments, security measures, and response policies and plans that are designed to respond to potential attacks upon the city of Chicago,” the department wrote in its response. “Release of this sensitive information would constitute a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the community and release could also reasonably jeopardize the effectiveness of the measures or the safety of the personnel who implement them or the public.”
The ACLU countered that the law requires the department to merely redact exempt information, rather than withholding records outright.
The ACLU is not only seeking orders requiring the department to release the records in their entirety, but to pay civil penalties for violating the law, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.
Contributing: Fran Spielman