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Chicago Police use secret software to spy on us. Next mayor must clue us in

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For the last two years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has been fighting to uncover one piece of the Chicago Police Department’s surveillance system: invasive social media surveillance software. | Sun-Times photo illustration

The history of the Chicago Police is troubling when it comes to secret and illegal surveillance of city residents. In the 1970s, the notorious Red Squad surveilled civil rights leaders and political protesters, infiltrating their groups.

Now, rather than relying on surveillance by individual officers, powerful and intrusive technologies supplement the CPD’s already extensive camera system. These integrated systems enable the city to surveil residents with a broad scope, speed, and level of secrecy unmatched in our city’s history. Police developed and implemented this comprehensive system completely in secret.

OPINION

For the last two years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has been fighting to uncover one piece of the Chicago Police Department’s surveillance system: invasive social media surveillance software. After stalling a response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and an ensuing lawsuit, the city of Chicago finally revealed the name of the company they contracted to surveil the social media of Chicago residents: Pathar Dunami.

The city shielded the name of the company for years, citing the uproar in 2016 regarding disclosure of its then-contractor, Geofeedia. Geofeedia’s marketing materials labeled activists and unions as “overt threats,” and its software was used in other locales to spy on Black Lives Matter protests.

When Twitter and Facebook learned how their users’ data was being used, the companies denied Geofeedia access to it, resulting in its closure. Chicago, in court filings, openly argued that it was entitled to hide Dunami’s name so that the company could be shielded from this same lawful, public outrage.

So what is this technology capable of? We do not know. The full scope of Dunami’s power is unknown because despite spending nearly $1.5 million on this technology over the last several years, the city has not retained a scrap of paper describing it — no trainings, no user’s manual, no marketing material.  The CPD has not retained a single piece of paper that can be shown to the public about the breadth of its capabilities.

We do know that social media monitoring software like Dunami has been used by other agencies to covertly surveil, collect, and analyze social media activity and data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The software then uses secret algorithms to make speculations about people and organizations that may or may not be correct. Some software is also capable of monitoring and identifying people in real time when protests happen.

By its very nature, this kind of spy software allows law enforcement to monitor large numbers of innocent people without evidence of any wrongdoing. Chicagoans deserve to know what digital surveillance tools are being used and the extent of their use. Most people do not want or expect the government to track them on social media, and the public should have the opportunity to provide input on if, when, and how these surveillance tools are used.

The freedom to express your opinion without fear of punishment from the government is a core feature of our democracy. The government should not be secretly using this technology as a tool to spy on people who voice an opinion the government doesn’t like, nor should the government hide the name of the companies with which it contracts.

The Chicago Police Department has never provided any public notice, solicited community input or sought legislative approval to use social media surveillance software, or the many other surveillance tools in its arsenal. This is isn’t the way government should work.

Our next mayor and City Council need to bring this secret social media surveillance program into the daylight. The public has a right to know the identity of government contractors in order to assess possible corruption, and the city of Chicago should not hide such basic information when a tool this invasive is being used.

Karen Sheley is the Police Practices Project director for the ACLU of Illinois.

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