Facebook, Twitter, Instagram data helped cops track activists, protesters: ACLU report

From live videos to hashtags, social media has played a big role in race-related protests over police shootings in the United States.

It turns out Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have also played another role. They’ve provided user-data access to a company that has helped police surveillance of protesters and activists in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, the ACLU of California says.

After being contacted by the ACLU, the social media companies say they have cut off access to Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that touts a “location-based intelligence platform” to predict and analyze social media content.

As  a result of public-records requests, the ACLU obtained emails between Geofeedia and law enforcement that touted Geofeedia’s offerings related to protests against police over shootings of African-Americans. The emails stated that Geofeedia paid for access to Twitter’s “Firehose,” and that it had partnerships and agreements with Instagram and Facebook.

From one of the emails, which the ACLU included in today’s blog post: “Geofeed streamer is unique to Geofeedia and has numerous uses (ie: Live Events, Protests – which we covered Ferguson/Michael Brown nationally with great success, Disaster Relief, Etc.)”

The ACLU also obtained a Geofeedia case study that detailed how the company’s offerings were used in Baltimore during the protests over the killing of Freddie Gray.

“When [the Geofeedia team] noticed increased chatter from a local high school about kids who planned to walk out of class and use mass transit to head to the Mondawmin Mall to protest, they alerted [Detective Sergeant Andew] Vaccaro immediately,” according to the case study, which noted that Geofeedia helped officers “stay one step ahead of the rioters.”

The case study also touted how the cops were able to use facial recognition to find “rioters” with outstanding warrants and pick them out from the crowd to arrest them.

Closer to home, Oakland police reportedly bought access to Geofeedia’s tools earlier this year.

A Facebook spokesman told SiliconBeat that Geofeedia had access only to data that Facebook and Instagram users chose to make public.

“If a developer uses our APIs 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,” he said.

Twitter tweeted the following this morning:

Geofeedia has not responded to SiliconBeat’s request for comment.

The ACLU’s blog post noted that social media company executives have appeared to empathize with protesters, with both Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing support for Black Lives Matter.

“Yet there is a severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided,” wrote Matt Cagle, Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, in the blog post.

Other advocacy groups are weighing in.

“This is more than just a violation of our privacy and freedom of speech; this is compliance with a system that tacitly condones institutional racism and surveillance of communities of color — we won’t stand for that,” SumofUs, a consumer watchdog, said in an emailed statement.

The ACLU is urging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram not to allow their products to be used for government surveillance; to be transparent about their policies on the issue; and to be vigilant about taking action against developers who violate their policies.


Photo: Demonstrators chant outside the courthouse on May 23, 2016 after Edward Nero, a Baltimore police officer, was found not guilty on all charges against him related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, in April. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


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