Law enforcement used social media to track activists and protesters during the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, according to a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Police received information from Geofeedia, a social media surveillance vendor that had special access to specific feeds on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Information including posts, topics, events, locations and photos was available to over 500 law enforcement agencies in real time.
One email obtained by the ACLU was dated October 20, 2015, and was between a Geofeedia representative and a member of the Riverside, California, police department, which was interested in Geofeedia’s services. The Geofeedia representative touted that the company “covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success.”
Facebook, which owns Instagram, and Twitter cut off Geofeedia’s access on September 19. Twitter had previously sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter before taking away Geofeedia’s access completely.
While the ACLU report acknowledges that these social media platforms have spoken out in support of social justice protests, they are not doing enough to protect its users’ right to free speech. According to Nicole Ozer, the ACLU of California’s technology and civil liberties policy director, this special access “allow[ed] the police to sneak in through a side door and use these powerful platforms to track protesters.”
“These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police,” Ozer said. “The ACLU shouldn’t have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing. The companies need to enact strong public policies and robust auditing procedures to ensure their platforms aren’t being used for discriminatory surveillance.”
Although technology can often be used in a productive way to advocate for social justice, access like Geofeedia’s can be easily exploited, the ACLU cautions:
“Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impactcommunities of color. Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattlecould easily target neighborhoods where people of color live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as ‘overt threats.'”
In a statement Geofeedia said its policies “include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals” based on race and other factors.
However, according to the report, the social media companies must put in place stricter policies. The report provides three requests for the social media companies:
No Access for Developers of Surveillance Tools
Clear, Public & Transparent Policies
Oversight of Developers
“The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes,” the report affirms.
Geofeedia Used Access Inappropriately, Platforms Say
Geofeedia had access to Facebook and Instagram’s special API feeds, which includes locations, photos, hashtags, events and other various information that users made public.
Facebook said in a statement that Geofeedia was using the information it obtained in a way that violates Facebook’s policies, which says that developers may not “sell, license, or purchase any data obtained from us or our services.” Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has almost identical wording in its policy.
“If a developer uses our [user data] in a way that has not been authorized, we will take swift action to stop them and we will end our relationship altogether if necessary,” Facebook said in a statement.
Similarly, Twitter’s policy says developers may not use this information “to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.”
According to the ACLU report, “Twitter did not provide access to its ‘Firehose,’ but has an agreement, via a subsidiary, to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets. In February, Twitter added additional contract terms to try to further safeguard against surveillance. But our records show that as recently as July 11th, Geofeedia was still touting its product as a tool to monitor protests. After learning of this, Twitter sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter.”
Twitter announced Geofeedia’s full suspension from its feed on October 11.
Policy (@policy) October 11, 2016