Police Surveillance Spurs Call for Youth Digital ‘Bill of Rights’

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Photo courtesy: Center for Court Innovation

Young people need a digital “Bill of Rights” to protect their social media communications from misuse by police and educational authorities, says a new report.

The report, based on interviews with young New Yorkers and commissioned by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), called on New York City Council to ban all social media surveillance of young people and to scrap a controversial database containing the names of suspected gang members.

Police around the country frequently keep watch over social media channels used by youth to monitor conflicts that could result in gang violence, but the lack of transparency or rules governing such surveillance disproportionately affects youth of color, claims the report written by the Youth Justice Board (YJB), a project of the CCI.

A lack of digital awareness on the part of youth, along with inadequate regulations and the Criminal Group Database — colloquially known as the ”gang database” — operated by the New York Police Department (NYPD), has left young New Yorkers “caught between competing adult priorities and left unserved by existing institutions,” the report, entitled “All Eyes on Us,” charged.

“Youth have little or no knowledge about the potential consequences of their interactions on social media, as well as the rights (or lack thereof) that they have over their digital data.”

The report was the latest installment in a series of studies conducted by the CCI that examine criminal justice issues and propose solutions from the perspective of young people.

The researchers interviewed experts in the field, community members, and public officials. They also led focus groups comprised of 12 youth affected by social media surveillance.

“Youth lack knowledge and training around digital citizenship and digital rights…[which] keeps young people from making educated choices on social media, leading to misinterpretations, mistakes and punishment,” the report said.

One focus group participant said, “The school never told [students] about the social media policy. The policy just pops up when the issue pops up.”

The authors also found that online conflict between students “is punished, not repaired, and strategies for dealing with online conflict are not offered to young people.”

The intersection between social media surveillance and the Criminal Group Database was also examined.

One of the many ways which in which suspected youth gang members are identified, added to the database, and tracked by the NYPD is through their social media, according to the report.

The researchers identified several problems with such tactics.

First, police access to residents’ social media pages is extensive and virtually unregulated.

Second, the NYPD’s criteria for placing individuals and groups in the database is vague.

For example, an individual can be added to the database for posting on social media “with known gang members while possessing known gang paraphernalia.”

This led members of the youth teams to raise the question: “Does it include a Tweet thread debating the best Brooklyn rapper, where one or more participants could be gang members?

“If we share a TikTok made by a gang member, do we become gang members by default?”

Third, the criteria used to populate the database disproportionately target poor youth and youth of color.

The researchers found that the vast majority of the NYPD’s social media monitoring occurs in public housing.

Additionally, “the NYPD Gang presentation specifies social media sites for police to monitor, including sites marketed towards people of color, such as WorldStar, Thehoodup, and Imperialhiphop. (Notably absent are Reddit and 4chan, which are used by white supremacist groups to recruit, organize, and execute hate crimes.).”

reportFourth, the NYPD does not notify individuals it places on the database, and such individuals have no opportunity to appeal their placement.

The researchers also studied the oversight and documentation of the city’s tracking of social media use by young people, and found no publicly available data on how often social media impacts residents’ ability to obtain social services such as education, housing and child welfare.

Although considered a “progressive” city by most, New York does not outline the rights that residents possess regarding the privacy of their digital data.

This, in turn, “allows for systems to surveil youth without consequences or regulations,” according to the authors.

Importantly, because the NYPD keeps its methods of social media monitoring under wraps, the public remains unaware of how their social media can be and is used against them by law enforcement.

YJB developed eight recommendations to increase transparency and accountability within city systems’ surveillance of youth’s social media. The recommendations include:

        • Mandating digital citizenship education in K-12 schooling;
        • Banning NYPD surveillance of social media and shutting down the Criminal Group Database;
        • Creating a Youth Bill of (Digital) Rights for minors;
        • Requiring the NYPD to be transparent about its surveillance strategies and to publish and distribute plain-language plans for data use.

To conclude their report, the authors appealed directly to the public.

“We hope that you now feel what we feel: alarm about the lack of attention to this issue, and urgency to take action in defense of youth rights,” the authors said.

The report’s primary authors were Kianna Ortiz, a 17-year-old attending Hunter College High School, and Ananya Roy, a 17-year-old attending The Bronx High School of Science.

Supporting authors included Nia Cabassa, Aaliyah Daniels, Ella Dassin, and Osvaldo Garcia.

Other supporting authors were Evelyn Javier, Alexis Lanysse, Clyde Morgan, Melisa Ruiz, and Nicole Smith.

The full report can be accessed here.

To see more of YJB’s work, click here.

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.

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