[10/11/16] A powerful surveillance program that police used for tracking racially charged protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., relied on special feeds of user data provided by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, according to an ACLU report Tuesday.
The companies provided the data — often including the locations, photos, friend lists, and other information posted publicly by users — to Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that says it analyzes social media posts to deliver surveillance information to 500 law enforcement agencies. The social media companies sought to restrict Geofeedia’s access to the streams of user data in recent weeks after the ACLU discovered them and alerted the companies about looming public exposure.
The popularity of Geofeedia and similar programs highlights how the rise of social media has given governments worldwide powerful new ways to monitor crime and civil unrest. Authorities often target such surveillance at minority groups or others seeking to publicly air political grievances, potentially chilling free speech, said the ACLU’s California affiliate, which unearthed Geofeedia’s relationship with social media companies through a public records request of dozens of law enforcement agencies.
“These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California. “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.”
Geofeedia did not comment for this story. Twitter tweeted in a statement, “Based on information in the @ACLU’s report, we are immediately suspending @Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.”