The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois on Thursday sued the Chicago Police Department for the release of information related to the department’s expanded social media monitoring task force announced last summer.
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges that CPD violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act when it “failed to release any requested records regarding its expanded social media monitoring task force” to the ACLU last year.
With the lawsuit, the ACLU is seeking an order requiring Chicago police to release said records, pay civil penalties and attorney fees, among other relief.
At issue is the social media task force Chicago police and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in August 2020 following protests in Chicago and around the world after a police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes in Minneapolis in late May.
Chicago also saw multiple rounds of looting throughout the city in the summer months, after which Lightfoot and police unveiled the new task force to monitor online activity that could indicate any future plans.
“As we’ve seen over these past few months, social media platforms have repeatedly been used to organize large groups of people to engage in illegal activity,” Lightfoot said in announcing the task force on Aug. 14.
Lightfoot said the 20-person unit within the Crime Prevention and Information Center would be focused on 24-hour social media monitoring of all open source information, reviewing key term searches and relevant pages or accounts.
The ACLU said it sent CPD a FOIA request on Aug. 26, 2020, seeking public records related to the department’s expanded social media monitoring, including the purpose for the initiative, the criteria under which they would monitor particular accounts, how that information would be used and more.
The ACLU and CPD corresponded multiple times over the scope and nature of the request, culminating in CPD’s denial of the FOIA request on the grounds that it was exempt because complying would “compromise” law enforcement’s investigative work and effectiveness.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU argued that the exemptions Chicago police cited don’t justify withholding the records requested and that as such, CPD has violated FOIA.
“CPD’s record on respecting personal privacy is abysmal,” attorney Ariana Bushweller, who was was part of the legal team filing the lawsuit, 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. The public needs this information to learn whether this latest surveillance is wrongfully targeting Black and Brown people, as has too often been the case across the country, including the surveillance of Black activists.”
The ACLU of Illinois has previously expressed concerns over police monitoring of online activity, criticizing CPD in 2019 over the department’s use of aggregation companies such as Dunami and Geofeedia, which can comb through vast amounts of data from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others, and can plot them on a map to look for trends.
Despite the criticism, Chicago police have expressed their support for the continuing use of such software, saying it’s particularly key to gang enforcement efforts as communication has shifted online.