ACLU Urges City, Police to Terminate Relationship with Social Media Monitor Spokeo

ACLU letter voices concern over ramifications of data-gathering relationship between Pasadena Police and data aggregation service

Published : Wednesday, October 18, 2017 | 5:37 AM

[Updated]  The ACLU of Southern California yesterday urged the Pasadena Police Department to end its relationship with Spokeo, Inc., a Pasadena-headquartered “people search” company which monitors social media, and to not use aggregated social media data collected from Pasadena residents.

In a 10-page letter dated October 17, ACLU lawyer Mohammad Tajsar said “surveillance technology proposals such as this one should not move forward without an open public debate about the civil liberties and civil rights costs.”

The letter was emailed to media and reportedly mailed to Mayor Terry Tornek, City Manager Steve Mermell, Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, and separately to each City Councilmember.

City of Pasadena Public Information Officer William Boyer said late Tuesday the City has not received any such ACLU letter. Boyer acknowledged the City has “a working relationship with Spokeo that was previously discussed at the Public Safety Committee meeting” of August 16, 2017.

Tajsar’s letter also requests the City to produce all documents concerning its relationship with Spokeo “in order to provide the public with critical information into the technology’s capabilities and the scope of its use by the city.”

Mayor Terry Tornek, who said he had not seen the letter, also said he was aware that Spokeo’s technology has become “a great concern for the ACLU and some other organizations.”

“On the one hand,” Tornek said, “the vast majority of people are interested in having us reduce crime and keep them safe, but on the other hand, every time the PD [police department] tries to explore various techniques to accomplish that, they run into a bit of a headwind in terms of the correct concerns about people’s privacy rights.”

“We have this every time a new piece of technology comes in,” Tornek said. “We had this with the license plate readers, we had this with the body cams. There is a continued fear of government overstepping its bounds and invading people’s privacy and a general mistrust of government in general and the police in particular.”

In the letter, Tajsar wrote that “the law doesn’t allow the police to keep files on all Pasadena residents’ Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram postings, real estate records, and voter registration information, and police shouldn’t access the same kind of comprehensive and sensitive information through a private company.”

“The city’s use of Spokeo for Law Enforcement raises serious risks of privacy and civil rights violations by the Pasadena Police Department, especially for the city’s over-policed communities of color,” Tajsar wrote.

Spokeo Senior Vice President Jason Matthes pointed out in a statement to Pasadena Now that Spokeo, which aggregates publicly available information from third party sources, offers an opt-out for consumers which allows them to request that Spokeo remove links to specific information.

“The concerns that have been voiced about Spokeo with respect to our pending partnership with PPD were previously addressed at the August 16 Public Safety Committee regular meeting where we provided details about our offering, and what our search tools do, and do not do,” Matthes said.

Spokeo has been taken to court on more than one occasion for allegedly publishing incorrect information. In 2011, a Virginia resident claimed that incorrect data, including a photo which was not him, was provided to potential employers, damaging his job search at the time.  That suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2016, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently that the plaintiff, Thomas Robins, “had alleged injuries that were sufficiently concrete to allow a lawsuit to move forward.”

Pasadena resident and ACLU SoCal/Pasadena-Foothills member Larry D’Addario said recently that Pasadena needs to look deeply and broadly into the need for more mass surveillance tools, their uses, costs, policies and public oversight.

“Too much mass surveillance arrives here under the radar. Too little is made known to the public,” D’Addario said.

“It’s a matter of trying to do the right thing,” Mayor Tornek concluded. “The problem is it’s not so much making people happy, but trying to do the right thing, and figuring out what the right thing is.”

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