A Discussion with Rachel Levinson-Waldman and Josh Raisler Cohn

March 13, 2024

Undercover and sting operations are a longtime hallmark of police investigations. But as our social lives have increasingly moved to the digital plane, so has policing. Police social media monitoring is one primary example. This might include police reviewing public social media profiles not subjected to privacy restrictions. But increasingly it also involves a new kind of undercover assignment: officers have begun to create accounts under invented identities to engage in both targeted and diffuse monitoring of social media accounts, getting windows into the vast content people share on their online profiles and reaching beyond digital privacy walls. Proponents have said this monitoring is less intrusive than other forms of surveillance, like stop and search policies; uses fewer police resources; and has been helpful in solving serious crimes. But scholars and affected communities have raised concerns, including the unknown scope of this monitoring, concerns about civil liberties, constitutionality, and discriminatory targeting, and that the creation of false accounts often violates user agreements of major social media platforms. We were joined by Rachel Levinson-Waldman and Josh Raisler Cohn to learn more about how law enforcement agencies use social media: how this unfolds in specific departments and in individual criminal cases, what kinds of strategies have been used to unearth law enforcement surveillance, and what kinds of strategies have been used to create guardrails for these secretive practices, in both public policy and private companies.


Rachel Levinson WaldmanRachel Levinson-Waldman is currently serving as an Ian Axford Fellow in Public Policy at the New Zealand Office of the Privacy Commissioner. As of July 2024, she will return to her position as managing director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where she works to shed light on the government’s use of surveillance technologies and authorities and its collection and use of data for law enforcement and intelligence purposes. Levinson-Waldman has authored articles and reports on topics including DHS’s counterterrorism initiatives, the government’s use of social media, and Fourth Amendment implications of public space surveillance. She has written and provided expert input for publications including the Guardian, the Washington Post, Wired, the Atlantic, and the New Republic. She is a graduate of Williams College and the University of Chicago Law School.

Josh Raisler CohnJosh Raisler Cohn is a public defender in the Roxbury Defenders Unit of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), representing poor people in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston charged with serious felonies. He has been a public defender since graduating from Northeastern University Law School in 2010. He is also a member of the CPCS Race Equity Training Team. While representing individual clients, Josh’s litigation strategy looks to attack structures in the law (and in society) that perpetuate systemic oppression. Josh has been involved in legal work within social movements for decades, using the tools of the legal system to support organizing for justice, liberation and self-determination. Josh is on the Board of Directors at the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, where he works to ensure activists and organizers who end up entangled with the law receive free, high-quality representation. Josh has also been Adjunct Faculty at Boston University School of Law.

Moderated by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.