The quest for a balance between liberty and an orderly society is as old as politics itself. How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to secure our safety, and how safe can we be if the more malevolent among us are free to do as they please, whenever they please? Surely violent street crime was rare in East Germany under the Stasi, but even with crime now on the rise in many American cities, who would argue for the imposition of a similarly oppressive regime here?
The digital age has revived these questions and added new ones, as so many of us memorialize so much of our lives in our ever-expanding digital footprints. We share our likes and dislikes, our comings and goings, even the most quotidian details of our daily activities, with networks of contacts that can span the country and even the world. How much of this are we willing to share with the police, who sometimes comb social networks to solve crimes already committed or avert those still being planned?
In January 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning think tank and advocacy group, requested information from the Los Angeles Police Department on how it collects and uses social media information on individuals and organizations. After receiving what it believed was an inadequate response, the Brennan Center sued the LAPD, prompting the release of ten sets of documents totaling more than 6,000 pages.
The documents the LAPD provided are described and linked to here, on the Brennan Center website. An honest review of these documents reveals a police department grappling with the issues related to social media and trying to balance their value in fighting crime with the free-expression and privacy rights guaranteed to users by the Constitution.
For our friends on the left, there can be no balance that allows the police even the most structured and monitored access to social media accounts, even those made publicly available by their users. Reliably expressing this view is the reliably left-wing Guardian, whose writers and editors are ever keen to the slightest hint of looming totalitarianism, so keen, in fact, that they see these hints even where none exist.
In a Sept. 8 story posted to the Guardian’s U.S. edition website, writer Sam Levin warns of the dangers of police having access to social media data. “Revealed,” says the headline, “LAPD officers told to collect social media data on every civilian they stop.” The story is accompanied by photos of helmeted and masked LAPD officers confronting protesters.
“The documents,” writes Levin, “which were obtained by the not-for-profit organization the Brennan Center for Justice, have raised concerns about civil liberties and the potential for mass surveillance of civilians without justification.”
The people at the Brennan Center and the Guardian are alarmed at a 2015 modification to the LAPD’s field interview card, on which officers record the name and identifying information of subjects they stop, arrest, or interview as witnesses to crimes. The F.I. cards now include a space for social media accounts to be included along with addresses and phone numbers. Far from being an encroachment on civil liberties, recording this information is merely an acknowledgment of how people live and communicate today.
Detectives and prosecutors know the frustration of trying to locate witnesses who may have moved or changed phone numbers over the months and years that sometimes elapse between the alleged crime and bringing the case to trial. Capturing social media information merely offers another avenue of contacting these people and ensuring their appearance in court.
As anyone familiar with the Guardian knows, no story on any aspect of policing would be complete without an accusation of racism and racial profiling, and Levin does not disappoint here. He cites a recent scandal in which three LAPD officers were accused of falsifying F.I. cards, branding some individuals as gang members without evidence. Troubling if true, certainly, but hardly germane to the larger question of whether officers should record social media information along with addresses and phone numbers of those they contact.
And of course Levin includes the endlessly repeated allegation that LAPD officers stop blacks and Latinos at “disproportionately high rates,” citing the Los Angeles Times as his source. I’ve written often on this topic (here, for example), raising the question Levin and the writers at the L.A. Times fail to ask: Disproportionate to what?
The L.A. Times, like so many other media outlets, infers racial animus because stop and arrest figures do not mirror population data for race and ethnicity. But as anyone who bothers to examine the data knows, neither do crime statistics, not in Los Angeles, not in any city you can name, a fact ignored in the L.A. Times and in Levin’s piece in the Guardian. When accounting for crime patterns within any ethnic or racial group, stop and arrest data line up perfectly.
Levin also questions the LAPD’s collaboration with private-sector firms that collect data from social media companies, raising the specter of a surveillance state. He quotes Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter L.A. and an outspoken critic of the LAPD. “They’re following Black protesters who are organizing to stop violence and saying, ‘Stop killing us’” says Abdullah. “And are they turning a blind eye to those who are actually violent: the white supremacist organizations that are growing in number?”
What can you say to this? If white supremacists have been violent as frequently and on as wide a scale as BLM protesters have been since the death of George Floyd last year, it has escaped my attention. And would that BLM display as much outrage over the thousands of blacks murdered by other blacks every year as they do to the handful killed by the police.
But no matter. The Guardian’s sympathies, like those of the L.A. Times, BLM, and every other left-wing organization, are with those who demonstrate contempt for civil society and busy themselves in undermining it. Yes, there is a balance to be struck between order and freedom, but don’t look for that balance on the pages of the Guardian.