Lentis/Law Enforcement and Social Media

Law enforcement organizations use social media services like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram in the pursuance of their duties. Their use has created new methods of policing based on internet browsing information garnered from internet service providers and tracking information available through geolocated and tagged social media posts.

Sting OperationsEdit

Sting operations in social media refer to the usage of fake users on social media and messaging sites in order to catch possible suspects as they commit some crime online. Alongside this, sting operations here can also refer to the usage of social media to publicly alert violators of outstanding fines through public shaming. This is done by law enforcement officers creating a fake user account on a social media site, such as Facebook and sending a friend request to the violator. If accepted, the officer then makes a public post on the violator's feed on the nature of the warrant or fine [1].

A good example of the nature of sting operations in social media is Dateline's To Catch a Predator. An episode would typically have a targeted sexual predator and attempt to get them to talk to a fake account representing a minor. After some time conversing, they would attempt to get the predator to meet the "minor" in person. If they were to meet, the predator would instead meet Chris Hanson with Dateline and law enforcement and ultimately be arrested.

Sting operations come with their own set of concerns. The most prominent being entrapment. Fake accounts also hold their own ethical concerns. To Catch a Predator also had some controversy, as the show lead to some unintended circumstances. For example, William Conradt was a potential target during the show's run. After conversing with a fake account, a SWAT team was sent to Conradt's house. Before Conradt could be reached and arrested, he had fatally shot himself.


In the Internet Age, Police monitoring of social media has become common with some members of law enforcement calling it "simply good police work"[2]. However, opaque operational guidelines and legal gray areas have led to concerns that the practice lends itself to covertly targeting people based on race, religion and a variety of other factors.

Since 2016 it has become increasingly common for police departments to invest in commercial software to more efficiently monitor social media. A report by the ACLU of Northern California from that year indicated that of the 63 California law enforcement agencies polled, 40% of them used this kind of software and the majority of these departments had started to do so in the year prior to the report being published[3] Of the different pieces of software used, the most common belonged to the company Geofeedia. The ACLU report specifically notes that Geofeedia refers to both unions and activist groups as "overt threats". Companies like Geofeedia, X1, and MediaSonar market themselves explicitly for use by law enforcement. In their marketing materials X1 calls the methods used in their "Social Discovery" software "legally defensible" and it also notes that if given a set of user credentials it can access private social media posts as well as public ones [4]

Gang AffiliationEdit

Many police departments nationwide employ Gang Databases, databases that track gang activity and suspected membership. Because gangs are often loosely defined organizations, additions to database were normally made after suspects were convicted of criminal conspiracy or voluntarily admitted that they were members of a gang. Now, many of these departments use social media interactions to attach individuals to gang activity without them ever interacting with authorities. In some cases, just being tagged in a photo, commenting on a post, or otherwise interacting with the social presence of a suspected gang member was enough to add someone to the database[5]. Opponents of these gang databases accuse the practices of being thinly veiled acts of racial profiling. They point to the large racial skew in the demographic make up of the databases, with the California, New York City, and Chicago Gang Databases being respectively comprised of over 85% 90%, and 95% persons of color[6][7][8]. Membership in these databases has serious consequences. In California membership comes attached with a statute that can tack on extra sentence ranging from 18 months to life in prison based on the severity of the initial conviction[9]. While most states do not have such laws, membership can still have severe consequences. One case that demonstrates this is that of Asheem and Jelani Henry.

In 2012, Jelani Henry was arrested on two counts of attempted murder in New York City. He was in the middle of his freshman year of college in New Jersey when the NYPD called his family home for information on his whereabouts. He was arrested upon returning to New York City.

The Manhattan District Attorney portrayed him as a known member of a violent gang using Henry's likes and tagged photos on social media. Henry had grown up with several young men who were now imprisoned for gang activities and two group photos with him from 2009, when he was 16 years old, were used as proof that he was still involved in the local "crew". Though Henry lacked a criminal record and large portion of the evidence against him was based solely on eyewitness reports, he was denied bail and incarcerated for 19 months, including a 9-month stint in solitary confinement on Riker's Island. The case was eventually dismissed [10].

Tracking ActivistsEdit

Historically, many law enforcement groups in the United States have kept tabs on activist groups in their efforts to keep the peace. Many activists claim that these practices are attempts to legitimize racial profiling. Modern technology and specifically social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter enable law enforcement to track activists on a wider scale and with a lower profile.

In February 2017 it was revealed that the city of Memphis maintained a list of people who were required to be escorted while visiting city hall. The list contained a number of activists who “had no criminal record or history of causing disturbances at City Hall”, almost all of whom were black[11]. Soon after, several of these activists filed a lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department and were joined by the Tennessee Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit claimed that the Department had violated a 1978 consent decree (Kendrick v. Chandler) that restricted the City of Memphis and any related department from engaging in “Political Intelligence” or “Harassment and Intimidation” of any person or persons exercising their First Amendment[12].

Activists also pointed to several other incidents of intense racial profiling. In one case, city police prevented a large number black protesters from attending an Elvis Presley vigil, while several protesters who were white were allowed to pass through without any issue[13]. In another, a PowerPoint presentation was distributed internally that contained large amounts of information on a number of Black Lives Matter activists[13].

A subsequent investigation revealed that all three cases were resultant from the Memphis PD gathering information on social media. Officers admitted that throughout 2016 and 2017 they created numerous fake Facebook profiles in order to deceive activists and gain access to the forums where they organized. With this access they could gather information on members and planned protests[2]. It was also revealed that not only members of these groups were monitored but also their friends and family[13]. Much of the information gathered from these methods was had not only been distributed internally but also to the Tennessee Department of Justice, The Department of Homeland Security, The US Armed Forces and several commercial corporations like Autozone [14]. City officials claimed these practices allowed them to better prepare for potential incidents, citing an instance where the Ku Klux Klan planned to protest a Black Lives Matter event[2].

In October 2018 a Federal Judge found that the Memphis Police Department had engaged in Political Intelligence and was in direct violation of the 1978 consent decree [14].

Tracking / Role of ISPsEdit

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are responsible for delivering network services to subscribers. They also exist as an intermediary between end users and law enforcement in internet communications. As of 2018, the top 5 ISPs by subscriber count in the United States accounts for 79,365,000 of the 97,100,000 subscribers. It is worth noting that a "subscriber" is not always one person, but can also refer to a household or business. This is broken down as follows:

ISP Subscriber Count
Comcast[15] 26,509,000
Charter / Spectrum[15] 24,622,000
AT&T[15] 15,772,000
Verizon[15] 6,956,000
CenturyLink[15] 5,506,000

All of these ISPs directly state in their Acceptable Use Policies that they will directly aid law enforcement in criminal or civil investigation. ISPs can deliver to law enforcement agencies any network communications that the subscriber has sent or received that can pertain to the investigation. This is also not a breach of the Fourth Amendment due to the Stored Communications Act, which outlines acceptable means for law enforcement to collect electronic messages from ISPs. This is exemplified through the case United States v Steven Warshak[16], where Warshak's request to prohibit the collection of private emails from his ISP was denied under the act.

There are concerns as to whether or not situations that require an ISP's involvement are a breach of user privacy, as the ISP is often giving law enforcement information from non-public communication channels like email or messaging client data. This opens up issues as to what can be considered private in relation to networked data, as wireless transmissions can always be prone to actions such as packet sniffing. There are also concerns as to the nature of encrypted transmissions in correspondence with law enforcement.


The Constitution does not provide adequate protection in the Internet Age for individuals in the context of criminal proceedings. Legislation is too slow to keep up with the pace of technology and the pace of social interaction with technology, creating a legal vacuum where abuse can proliferate. For future research, another possible mitigation for law enforcement abuse are Consent Decrees, which serve as a faster and more effective way to establish information access limits. Other possible topics include:

  • Law Enforcement Social Media as a public relations arm
  • Social Media as Local Crime Bulletin Boards
  • Role of Social Media Companies


  1. Lovel, J. R. (2013, February). Law Enforcement and Social Media: A leadership white paper. Texas, Webster.
  2. a b c Noori Farzan, Antonia. Memphis police used fake Facebook account to monitor Black Lives Matter, trial reveals. (2018, August 23) The Washington Post.[1]
  3. Ozer, Nicole. Police Use of Social Media Surveillance Software Is Escalating, and Activists Are in the Digital Crosshairs. (2016, September 22) American Civil Liberties Union. [2]
  4. X1 Social Discovery.(2018) [3]
  5. Hanson, Wayne (2011, December). How Social Media Is Changing Law Enforcement[4]
  6. Sweeny, Annie. Massive gang database kept by Chicago police under fire as inaccurate, outdated. (2018, April 30) Chicago Tribune. [5]
  7. Pinto, Nick. NYPD DISPUTES GANG DATABASE NUMBERS — BUT ITS MATH DOESN’T ADD UP.(2019, June 14)The Intercept.[6]
  8. Winton, Richard. California gang database plagued with errors, unsubstantiated entries, state auditor finds.(2016, August 11) The Los Angeles Times.[7]
  9. Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. Cal. Penal Code § 186.22.a (2016)
  10. Popper, Ben (2014, December).How the NYPD is using social media to put Harlem teens behind bars. The Verge[8]
  11. American Civil Liberties Union Tennessee. Blanchard et al. vs. City of Memphis.(2018, July 25)[9]
  12. Chan Kendrick et al. vs. Wyeth Chandler et al. : . (1978, September 14). Order, Judgement and Decree. [10]
  13. a b c Robinson, Jeffrey. Memphis Police Surveillance of Activists Is a Betrayal and a Reminder. (2018, August 9)[11]
  14. a b American Civil Liberties Union Tennessee. Judge Rules That Memphis Police Spying Violates 1978 Court Order. (2018, October 26)[12]
  15. a b c d e 455,000 Added Broadband in 2Q 2018. (2018, August 14).[13]
  16. US v. Warshak, 631 F.3d 266 (6th Cir. 2010).