Chicago Web Developers Launch Tool to Monitor Police

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Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of California released emails showing that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provided Geofeedia, a social media monitoring company used by several law enforcement agencies nationwide, specialized access to feeds of bulk public data. Geofeedia used the feeds to spy on Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson and Baltimore. CityLab reports that the controversy inspired a group of digital activists to turn the tables on law enforcement. Lucy Parson Labs, a Chicago collective of web developers (their name comes from the Wobbly-era labor organizer who Chicago police once called “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”) has released a new tool that allows the public to collect and share social media data on police officers. The web tool, OpenOversight, is aimed at the Chicago Police Department, one of many agencies that uses Geofeedia to monitor public events.

The tool seeks to match the names and badge numbers of officers (obtained by records requests) with photos (drawn from social media) to help people file misconduct complaints. So far, the app’s gallery of officer photos draws on publicly available data from Chicago Police Department social media accounts and Flickr. Lucy Parsons Labs estimates that it has photos of only 1 percent of Chicago officers. The project’s Jennifer Helsby says the site’s identification capacity will become more robust as members of the public upload more photos of officers. The team hopes to spread the tool across the country. “The initial idea for the project came from looking at how police do social media monitoring,” says Helsby. “We talked to people who had been victims of [police] abuse and had gone to file complaint, but were told, ‘If you don’t know the badge number and name, nothing is going to happen.’” Chicago police representatives have raised concerns that OpenOversight could endanger police officers’ lives.

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