Cops is internet is cops
Why pretend social media isn't the perfect place to go undercover?
It’s week 3! A thousand thanks to everyone who’s subscribed. This is an ongoing experiment and I’m so happy you’re a part of it.
This week, I’m covering an undercover FBI operation that targeted a progressive group in Colorado. It involves a shady program that might mean your Facebook groups are full of undercover cops, and makes the case that abolishing the police means abolishing Big Tech, too.
At the end of the post, I’m putting out a call for your most fiendish parking ticket experiences. Here we go…
Last June, a Nebraska police officer used Facebook messages to investigate a 17-year-old, along with her mother, for accessing abortion medication. The daughter is now 19 and was recently sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The Nebraska case is an awful consequence of the collapse of abortion rights in the US. It also reaffirms the dangers of ceding the internet to corporate platforms that put profit and police over people. Celeste and Jessica Burgess might have escaped prosecution if they hadn’t used a product owned by Meta, a company that contracts with law enforcement, supports police foundations, and complies with tens of thousands of police data requests each year.
All Big Tech companies share data with the police. They sometimes do so without a warrant. They might say they fight for privacy in Super Bowl ads, but features on the largest apps that are supposed to protect us, such as end-to-end encryption, are often limited in scope, or designed to fail, or both.
If a warrant fails, or the company refuses, or it’s just too annoying, law enforcement can simply go out and buy the data they want. Today’s social media is the police’s manicured hunting grounds. Cops is social media is cops.
Over the past few weeks, new information’s come out about a Colorado Springs police retaliation case that’s a shining example of the extent to which social media and law enforcement are enmeshed. To target and harass housing justice activists at the nonprofit Chinook Fund, police used every tool at their disposal—including dragnet social media warrants and a little-known FBI program called SOMEX, or Social Media Exploitation.
SOMEX is “my FBI agent” come to life. It’s a task force founded in 2019 that enables deep social media snooping by officers, agents, and contractors. Police departments partner with SOMEX to gain access to undercover profiles and funnel information up the chain of command; the FBI employs third-party firms to mine social data with explicit instructions to maintain “the lowest digital footprint.” This is warrantless surveillance perpetrated by internet stalkers with badges, and it all runs on the data amassed by Big Tech.
There isn’t direct evidence that tech companies share data with SOMEX, but investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson (follow his Substack!), who’s done extensive reporting on this case and runs the podcast Alphabet Boys, sees some underlying links. For example, the Chicago Police Department is a SOMEX partner. It also works directly with Amazon Ring. In 2020, these twin relationships allowed CPD to share Ring surveillance data with the FBI as part of investigations into the summer’s racial justice protests.
In some ways, the Age of the Social Media Cop feels obvious. Big picture, it tracks that a global communications network funded by the Department of Defense evolved into a top-tier police sniffing tool. But awareness is one thing, and breaking it’s another.
I’m thinking about anti-cop architecture in online spaces. There are technical paths, like encryption, anonymization, and decentralization. Building trust networks is important too: activists and organizers should be aware that their online activity may be actively monitored by an agency, or several (mantra: social media is cops).
An internet without privacy is an internet for the police. Just like we can’t fix “misconduct” with transparency portals, we can’t simply break cops away from their digital tools. We have to embrace an abolition that abolishes Big Tech’s data power too.
CALL FOR WOE!
This week I funded the police by paying a $140 parking ticket. I’m blaming bad parking app design.
I want to write about clunky, frustrating, and built-to-fail city tech and would love to hear your parking bureaucracy tales. Comment below or email email@example.com.