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MPD Hands Over Records of Social Media Surveillance of D.C. Activism and Pays Big Legal Fees to Requesters to End Their Successful Lawsuit

Fritz Mulhauser | June 7, 2024 | Last modified: June 8, 2024

The District of Columbia will pay $400,000 in legal fees as part of a deal to end a legal battle by advocates seeking release of Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) records of high-tech surveillance, according to a court filing June 6.

The District had released 700,000 pages of records during two years of wrangling under the court’s watchful eye (Yvonne M. Williams, Associate Judge), but the District’s final paper denied any “culpability or liability.”

Filed in March 2022, the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Brennan Center and Data for Black Lives (D4BL) requested the court order release of records showing details of police outsourcing to private firms that collect information about individuals, groups, and First Amendment–protected activities. MPD originally said there were only a handful of records and the mayor’s office never answered an appeal. The court held multiple hearings and grew impatient in 2022-23 as the DistrIct carried out further searches, writing at one point, “The court is astonished by the District’s actions (or lack thereof) in this case…what has the District been waiting for?”

Following release, the Brennan Center reported on the records and also posted documents online. According to the Center, “procurement records and emails exchanged with an array of private vendors, reveal that between 2014 and 2022, the Metropolitan Police Department used software from companies including Babel Street, Dataminr, Sprinklr, and Voyager.” Records also showed D.C. “shared information uncovered from social media platforms connected to racial justice protests on mass email chains, and they characterized protesters and activists as threats.”

D.C. community groups in recent years have drafted legislation calling for close advance review and explicit authorization before the D.C. Council allows spending by any agency for surveillance. Dayton, Detroit, Santa Clara County (CA), and other places have enacted such laws. The Council set limits on police surveillance over 20 years ago after undercover officers infiltrated planning for demonstrations in the District. Those requirements may get a new look in light of the new records gained through the Brennan Center/D4BL FOIA lawsuit.

“As DC police continue to pay for surveillance tools that track peaceful protests and generate lists of activists and their networks, the public deserves full information regarding their use. A review of the documents provided in response to the request by the Brennan Center and Data for Black Lives raises concerns about how law enforcement is deploying these tools to collect personal information, flag people as part of investigations, and monitor First Amendment–protected activities.

So long as the police continue to purchase social media surveillance tools, they must be deployed in a way that promotes public safety without undermining fundamental privacy and First Amendment rights. Departments must commit to adopting commonsense guardrails to prevent misuse and abuse of social media.”

Brennan Center, “Documents Reveal How DC Police Surveil Social Media Profiles and Protest Activity”

The case is Brennan Center for Justice, et al., v. District of Columbia, No. 2022-CA-000922-B (D.C. Superior Court). The plaintiffs were represented pro bono by the law firm of Ballard Spahr.