November 18, 2016
A WFPL News investigation revealed the Louisville Metro Police has spent nearly $140,000 in recent years for a program that can track and catalog up to 9.5 million social media postings and a limitless supply of individual profiles. The department has operated the system without a guiding policy to dictate how the software is used, who is watched and what becomes of information collected. The surveillance effort has drawn concern from city legislators and civil liberty advocates.
Policy Being Drafted. Louisville, assistant chief Robert Schroeder said a guiding policy is in the works. He declined to discuss details, saying it was too early in the process. “We really do need a policy,” he acknowledged, echoing demands of a number of Metro Council members and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. Schroeder characterized the attention paid to the surveillance effort in recent weeks as “sensationalism.” Schroeder, who oversees the use of technology for the department, said officers have been able to prevent crimes and thwart public safety threats by keeping tabs on social media. He declined to provide specific instances or evidence of such incidents.
Schroeder said he doesn’t know what type of access Snaptrends has to the information collected by LMPD. “I can’t speak to Snaptrends ’ internal capabilities,” he said. Schroeder said he’s also unaware of what specific social media channels are monitored by the LMPD through the use of Snaptrends
Recent media reports show SnapTrends had its access to certain data cut off by Twitter. The relationships were severed just days after a similar company, GeoFeedia, had its access to data slashed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram after the ACLU reported it marketed its service as a way to monitor activists. “Obviously, if we pay for a service and we no longer get that service, we have to consider what our options are,” he said. “If the service can’t provide what it says, then no, it won’t continue.”
Council Questions Purchase
Some Metro Council members take specific issue with how the police department procured their surveillance software. An exemption in the city’s purchasing policy allowed the police department to purchase the surveillance software without Metro Council review. Department officials consider the SnapTrends service a subscription, which doesn’t require purchase through a standard competitive bidding process.
City policy states that any purchase exceeding $20,000 must be made using a Professional Service Contract. The department made four payments to SnapTrends ranging from $19,500 to $53,000, according to invoices obtained by WFPL News via an open records request. Councilwoman Angela Leet, a District 7 Republican, questioned the legitimacy of the purchase in an interview last week and said department officials used a “loophole” to avoid council review.
LMPD’s agreement with Snaptrends began in 2014, just days after a group of young people caused several acts of vandalism and violence downtown, starting at Waterfront Park. Chief Steve Conrad called it “truly mob-like behavior.” Shortly after that, Schroeder said, the department was contacted by a sales representative for Snaptrends. “They had the solution, it looked good, so we got with our purchasing department on how we could purchase it and ended up subscribing to their service,” he said. “It just looked like a solid product.” Now, however, Schroeder doesn’t seem so sure. Department officials, he said, had some “grand ideas” when they first began using Snaptrends — among them, that it could help wrangle murder witnesses.