Some cops have their eyes on the street. Others have their eyes on your selfies.
According to In re K.B., an appeals court ruling issued late last month, the San Francisco Police Department has at least one designated "Instagram Officer" who scans the popular photo-sharing service throughout the day, "monitor[ing] and track[ing] individuals."
Eduard Ochoa has been the "Instagram Officer" for three or four years in the Bayview Station, according to the court filings, and his work has yielded results. In the K.B. case, Ochoa spotted a juvenile and adult posing with a firearm — a violation since both were on probation. The juvenile's lawyer objected to the use of Instagram pics as evidence, but the court did not.
More recently, the SF Police Officer's Association's newsletter praised Ochoa and some fellow Bayview Station officers for performing an "extremely intensive investigation using the most modern techniques provided by our new electronic age" to locate the suspect in a shooting near the Potrero Hill Housing Projects. Another case of Instapolicing was written up by the Chronicle's Matier and Ross in 2013, when SFPD reportedly matched a weapon to a suspect and tracked him down based on selfies.
Despite the apparent efficacy of its cyber-sleuthing, SFPD is loathe to discuss it. Ochoa declined to speak with SF Weekly. In response to written questions about official "Instagram Officers," SFPD spokesperson Carlos Manfredi wrote: "There is no official 'Instagram' officer within the dept. Officers may use social media for investigations. However, this officer may be the Bayview Station officer with the expertise in social media and designated when it comes to social media and investigations at Bayview Station." The officer who picked up the phone at the Bayview Station said that it's "always amusing" when people self-incriminate, but asked that SF Weekly not disclose the department's secret investigative techniques.
Perhaps that reticence is due to the fact that there's something unsavory — if not illegal — about the targeted surveillance of certain populations online.
"Police officers will present themselves as an attractive female, and the unsuspecting young person will accept their 'friendship,'" says Tal Klement, a deputy public defender in San Francisco who has represented clients in cases where Instagram or Facebook evidence was used. "It raises all kinds of privacy concerns when police are pretending to be friends with young people to access their information."
There's also the question of which of Instagram's 300 million accounts the SFPD chooses to monitor. "My experience is that this is a tactic that is exclusively used for surveilling young people of color," says Klement. "That raises serious questions about racial profiling online."
SFPD declined to comment on whether its officers create "undercover" accounts or on how it chooses which accounts to monitor, citing state law that exempts investigative procedures from disclosure.
So be careful who you "friend" and think twice before you post. Officer Ochoa might have his #eyes on you.
A previous version of this misspelled Tal Klement's name. It is Klement, not Koment. We regret the error.