- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A technology firm that analyzes and sells social media data to law enforcement for surveillance purposes will no longer have special access to user data on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The social media companies have cut off Geofeedia’s special access after the American Civil Liberties Union found that data analyses posted to the platforms were being marketed to agencies as a way to monitor activists and protesters.

Geofeedia, which collects real-time social media information based on location, cited its success in monitoring social media use during protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, as it marketed its technology to police agencies, according to documents obtained by the ACLU and made public Tuesday.

The Baltimore County Police Department, for instance, used the Geofeedia’s analysis when riots erupted in Baltimore in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray, according to one “case study” document obtained by the ACLU.

A Geofeedia employee “volunteered to draw perimeters around key locations, set up automated alerts, and forward real-time information” to a member of the police department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, according to the ACLU documents. The data were streamed into an emergency operations center command post and displayed on “eight giant, in office TV screens.” Officers used the data “to run social media photos through facial recognition technology to discover rioters with outstanding warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd.”

The disclosures stem from requests the ACLU of Northern California sent to 63 police agencies to find out whether they used any social media surveillance software. Of the 52 agencies that have responded, the ACLU found 21 were using such tools, and 13 specifically had used Geofeedia. Emails obtained from the departments show how Geofeedia representatives sought to market the technology to the agencies — raising concern among the social media companies that were partnering with the Chicago-based company.

The new disclosures indicate that Instagram provided Geofeedia access to public user posts that included location data associated with the posts. Facebook allowed Geofeedia to access a data feed that ranked public posts mentioning certain trending topics, like hashtags, events or specific places. Twitter, through a subsidiary, provided Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, called the scope of the surveillance “alarming.”

“This is really sophisticated surveillance without any safeguards for civil liberties and civil rights,” Ms. Ozer said, noting that none of the police departments using social media surveillance technology had adopted a policy on use.

What’s more, none of the departments using the technology held any public debate before implementing the surveillance programs.

As of June, Geofeedia distributed information to more than 500 police and law enforcement agencies, emails disclose.

A spokesman for Geofeedia did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Facebook and Instagram ended Geofeedia’s access to user data on Sept. 19 after the ACLU contacted the companies about its findings. A Facebook spokesman noted that Geofeedia had access only to data that users chose to make public, but the company’s use of the data was a violation of Facebook’s use policies.

“Its access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy, which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data using the Facebook platform,” a spokesman said. “If a developer uses our [application programming interfaces] 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 and Instagram have policies that ban the sale or licensing of data obtained through its interfaces.

Twitter, which bans the sale of user data for surveillance, announced Tuesday that it was suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to its data as a result of the ACLU report.

The ACLU, along with Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice, wrote to the companies encouraging them to ban developers from using data for surveillance or providing access to developers who have law enforcement clients. The groups also urged the companies to adopt oversight mechanisms that will allow them to check up on how developers use data to ensure compliance with their policies.

“While we’re glad both companies have cut off Geofeedia’s access to user data, both of these companies only did so after these secret deals were made public,” said Brandi Collins, campaign director with Color of Change. “Both companies need to immediately develop publicly accessible policies that prevent these types of harmful deals from happening again in the future.”


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