New York police spend millions to scrape social media and spy on users

New York police have spent millions of dollars on efforts to track social media posts and have contracted a surveillance firm accused of improperly scraping platforms for data.

Products by Voyager Labs, a surveillance company, supposedly use artificial intelligence to analyze online human behavior. The software performs rapid analysis on large digital files and helps law enforcement detect and predict fraud and crimes, the firm says.

It signed a contract worth nearly $8.5 million with the NYPD back in 2018, documents obtained by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a privacy advocacy non-profit organization.

The problem is Voyager Labs has been sued by Meta, a tech giant, for allegedly using nearly 40,000 fake Facebook accounts to collect data on an estimated 600,000 users – in other words, for improper data scraping.

The Guardian previously reported that Voyager Labs pitches itself as a software company that helps law enforcement surveil and investigate people by pulling together and reconstructing their entire digital lives.

Meanwhile, another agency, the Queens district attorney, has also signed a deal with an Israeli firm Cobwebs Technologies, another document shows. The company also offers social network mapping products.

To be fair, law enforcement in the US has worked with social media analytics firms for years. There are hordes of personal information online, and it could potentially be of great importance in any given investigation.

However, the practice needs to be used responsibly and lawfully, experts warn – especially when police seek to predict future criminality by accessing private information and skipping such steps like obtaining subpoenas and warrants.

“The contracts with Voyager Labs and Cobwebs Technologies both expand law enforcement’s use of social media monitoring and other dragnet surveillance tools, which have long targeted Black and Latinx New Yorkers, including children,” said STOP's director Will Owen.

“This is invasive, it’s alarming, and it should be illegal. Our constitution requires law enforcement to get a warrant prior to searching the public, but increasingly police and prosecutors just buy our data instead.”

Owen added: “This isn’t just bad policing, it’s not just enabling companies that steal our data, but it’s a flagrant end-run around the Constitution.”

In the case of Voyager Labs, what’s controversial is that the firm enables clients to create fake social media profiles to collect data that is otherwise inaccessible. This is why Meta was unhappy and sued Voyager in January 2023, demanding it be permanently banned from Facebook and Instagram.

It’s unclear how exactly the NYPD has been using Voyager software, but its police officers are legally permitted to use fake social media profiles. According to STOP’s civil rights intern Liz Huang: “With every friend and follow request you accept, you risk a covert cop invading your privacy.”

The civil rights group is also a leading advocate of the “Stop Online Police Fake Accounts and Keep Everyone Safe” (STOP FAKES) Bill in New York State. The first-of-its-kind legislation would ban police from leveraging fake social media accounts to surveil New Yorkers.