Little-known company Geofeedia bragged about tracking the Ferguson protests.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California announced that, after the organization obtained revealing documents through public records access requests, Facebook and Instagram have cut off data access to a company that sells surveillance products for law enforcement. Twitter has also curbed the surveillance product's access.
The product, called Geofeedia, is used by law enforcement to monitor social media on a large scale, and relies on social media sites' APIs or other means of access. According to one internal email between a Geofeedia representative and police, the company claimed their product "covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success," in reference to to the fatal police shooting of a black teenager in Missouri in 2014, and subsequent protests.
"Our location-based intelligence platform enables hundreds of organizations around the world to predict, analyze, and act based on real-time social media signals," the company's website reads.
According to the ACLU, Instagram provided Geofeedia access to its API; Facebook gave access to a data feed called the Topic Feed API, which presents users with a ranked list of public posts; and Twitter provided Geofeedia, through an intermediary, with searchable access to its database of public tweets. Instagram and Facebook terminated Geofeedia's access on September 19, and Twitter announced on Tuesday that it had suspended Geofeedia's commercial access to Twitter data.
Geofeedia responded several hours after this article was published, with CEO Phil Harris providing an emailed statement saying the company's tool was used by "law enforcement officials across the country" for "helping to ensure public safety." Yet Harris said the company was simultaneously committed to "protecting civil rights and liberties," without providing specifics. The full statement appears at the end of this article.
Social media monitoring software has become an attractive tool, and controversial issue, for law enforcement. ACLU's concern, according to the group's blog post, is that Geofeedia's technology could be used to target neighborhoods of where people of colour live, or monitor activists.
In May, Denver police spent $30,000 on Geofeedia,The Daily Dot recently reported.
This isn't the first time social media giants have taken issue with surveillance companies using its platforms. In May, Twitter cut off access to Dataminr, a service which attempts to identify unfolding events or political unrest.
But the ACLU says there is more to be done, particularly when it comes to the social media networks themselves.
"Beyond the agreements with Geofeedia, we are concerned about a lack of robust or properly enforced anti-surveillance policies. Neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes," the group writes. In response, the ACLU is calling for no data access to be given to developers of surveillance tools; for companies to publish transparent policies around their data being used for surveillance, and for greater oversight of developers.
Read Geofeedia CEO Phill Harris's full statement below:
Geofeedia is a software platform that aims to provide important, real-time publicly available information to a broad range of private and public sector clients, including corporations, media and journalism groups, marketing and advertising firms, educational companies, cities, schools, sports teams, and the aviation sector. In each of these areas, Geofeedia is committed to the principles of personal privacy, transparency and both the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to individual rights. Our platform provides some clients, including law enforcement officials across the country, with a critical tool in helping to ensure public safety while protecting civil rights and liberties. Notably, our software has also been used in response and recovery efforts – from the Boston Marathon to the effects of Hurricane Matthew that we saw this past weekend – to assist millions of people affected by both manmade and natural events. Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software; these include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors. That said, we understand, given the ever-changing nature of digital technology, that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights. Geofeedia will continue to engage with key civil liberty stakeholders, including the ACLU, and the law enforcement community to make sure that we do everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.