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Social Media Sites Enabled Law Enforcement Surveillance of Protesters

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provided access to data for Geofeedia, which then gave law enforcement the location data in order to monitor protesters in Oakland and Baltimore, according to a blog post published by the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday.

After the ACLU reported its finding to the companies, Instagram cut of Geofeedia’s access to users’ posts, Facebook cut off its access to a topic-based feed of public user posts, and Twitter cut of Geofeedia from the company entirely.

Geofeedia representatives marketed its product to law enforcement by describing its access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Geofeedia representatives said that the company had agreements with Twitter and Instagram, and a “confidential legally binding agreement with Facebook,” to access data from the sites.

According to the ACLU, Instagram provided Geofedia with location data from users’ posts; Facebook provided Geofeedia with a ranked feed of public posts from that mention a topic, including hashtags, events, or specific places; and Twitter provided Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets.

Geofeedia claimed to provide this data to 500 law enforcement and public safety clients.

“Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color,” said Matt Cagle,technology & civil liberties policy attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle could easily target neighborhoods where people of color live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as ‘overt threats.’ ”

Facebook and Instagram do not have a public policy banning third-party use of data for surveillance purposes. Twitter has a Developer Policy that prohibits the use of Twitter data “to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.”

The chief executive officer of Geofeedia has agreed to meet with the ACLU.

“We will see what he has to say for himself,” Cagle said.

The ACLU recommended that social media sites adopt policies that keep them from providing data to law enforcement that could be used for surveillance purposes; policies that are clear, public, and transparent; and consequences if these policies are broken.

“The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes,” Cagle said. “We are confident the companies agree.”

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