Chicago-based Geofeedia, a "location-based intelligence platform" that analyzes social media posts to deliver them as surveillance information to 500 law enforcement agencies, is often used to target protesters such as Black Lives Matter activists according to the ACLU. Geofeedia has even marketed its services as such, with a company rep writing to San Jose Police in 2014 that the product can be used "for the Ferguson Situation." Today the ACLU of California publicly revealed that Geofeedia has been reliant on data access from formal relationships with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. To the credit of these companies, the ACLU privately reported its findings to them, and all three have curtailed data access relationships with Geofeedia.
Public record requests by the ACLU to 63 law enforcement agencies in the state turned up responses that lead to knowledge of the agreements between Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Geofeedia. Those agreements, according to the ACLU, were these:
Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to the Instagram API, a stream of public Instagram user posts. This data feed included any location data associated with the posts by users. Instagram terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
Facebook had provided Geofeedia with access to a data feed called the Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be a tool for media companies and brand purposes, and which allowed Geofeedia to obtain a ranked feed of public posts from Facebook that mention a specific topic, including hashtags, events, or specific places. Facebook terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
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.
According to a tweet from Twitter's Policy account, the company has gone one step further today after news of the ACLU's findings broke publicly.
"Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color," Matt Cagle, the ACLU's Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Attorney writes. The Oakland Police Department, for one, has been using the tool Geofeedia since 2014, the East Bay Express uncovered this April.
Cagle also draws a stark contrast between the stated goals of social media companies, especially their leaders, and their relationships with Geofeedia. "Social media companies and their executives have expressed support for activists, movements, and free speech," Cagle writes. "Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Black Lives Matter and expressed sympathy after Philando Castile’s killing, which was broadcast on Facebook Live. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey went to Ferguson. Above all, the companies articulate their role as a home for free speech about important social or political issues. Yet there is a severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided."