Is JSO spying on you?

Times-Union reports Sheriff's Office paid company to help track protesters

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Is the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spying on you? A recent article in The Florida Times-Union pointed out how JSO had paid an internet company to help track protesters, and police themselves were videotaping marches and rallies. 

News4Jax spoke on Monday with some of those who were targeted by police and to the reporter who broke the story. 

A video recorded by a JSO officer at a protest rally last year in Hemming Park was made public by the Times-Union when the paper requested the footage. 

A man seen on a megaphone, activist Dave Schneider, talked about what he thinks about police watching and taping him during a peaceful protest. 

"I have known for some time that our social media is being watched. I think this is (an) incredibly important revelation, though, that we see unprecedented numbers of young people getting active for the first time politically. And it's very important that people know that the powers that be look at that as very dangerous to them," Schneider said. 

According to the Times-Union report, JSO had a contract with Geofeedia, an internet company, that tracked groups on social media by watching for key words, such as "rally," "#BlackLivesMatter" and "anti-Trump." 

Sheriff Mike Williams has told News4Jax in the past that they do not use facial recognition software on crowds to help apprehend suspects.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said he had "not heard of it being used against anyone."

Ben Conarck, the reporter who wrote the article for the Times-Union, said he's been researching it since October and he's been trying to find out what the rules are when it comes to this type of surveillance. 

"I think the point of the article is without any written policy, without anything telling the crime analyst using the software what they can and can't do with it, the possibilities are kind of open. You have people who are concerned with Big Brother mentality and certainly the Sheriff’s Office is within its right legally and policy-wise to do that kind of stuff," Conarck said.

News4Jax wanted to know whether JSO spies on demonstrators and what the agency does with the video once it's obtained. Since JSO would only respond by written comment, and would not agree to an on-camera interview, News4Jax submitted the following questions: 

Does JSO have a policy when it comes to using social media for surveillance purposes?

JSO's response: "Any specifics (in policy or not) on how we conduct investigations would not be subject to public disclosure."

Do you have or had  a contract with any company like Geofeedia?

JSO: "No, we currently do not. (If you want to know what we had and when we had it, that’s got to go through public records.)"

Does JSO videotape protest and other events?  

JSO: "Yes, we do. We speak to protest organizers prior to the event. An officer in uniform is taping."

What are those tapes used for?

JSO: "At gatherings where there are large numbers of people, you never know what is going to happen. In protecting the community we videotape, in a public setting, and obvious to all who are there. Should there be an incident involving demonstrators or a complaint about officers’ conduct, relative to someone saying their right to peaceably assemble was impacted, we would have the video."

Is there a policy regarding those tapes and video?

JSO: "The records schedule for law enforcement would guide their retention. GS2. It may become a training tool, also. If there is no evidentiary or investigative value, it can be disposed of in accordance with the retention schedule."

Does JSO use facial recognition software?  

JSO: "Yes, the FACES program is used to identify suspects not known to us when we have a photo."

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