Chicago startup Geofeedia provides social media data to law enforcement, according to the ACLU

Chicago startup provides social media data to law enforcement, according to the ACLU / Courtesy of Geofeedia

The ACLU of California has blown the whistle on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for providing user data to Chicago-based social media monitoring company, Geofeedia.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Geofeedia is like TweetDeck for law enforcement. As users tweet from a location, Geofeedia organizes tweets for the police to read and analyze. The Chicago Police Department said to The Tribune that it uses the tool to monitor activity at special events, such as sports gatherings, but that its use for "First Amendment protected" events requires greater oversight.

According to a statement from the ACLU, “Instagram cut off Geofeedia’s access to public user posts, and Facebook has cut its access to a topic-based feed of public user posts. Twitter has also taken some recent steps to rein in Geofeedia though it has not ended the data relationship.”

Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said in a statement that Geofeedia is working “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.”

Supposedly, Instagram provided Geofeedia with access to Instagram API, which is a stream of Instagram user posts, that include data location for the posts. Instagram allegedly terminated this agreement on Sept. 19, 2016.

For Facebook, Geofeedia had access to the Topic Feed API, which is a tool created for brands and media companies. It allowed Geofeedia to rank Facebook posts that mentions topics, hashtags, events or places. Facebook allegedly terminated this agreement on Sept. 19, 2016.

Twitter didn’t provide access to Firehose, which gathers data from Twitter, but thanks to a subsidiary, Geofeedia had the ability to search public tweets. In February, Twitter added additional contract terms but allegedly in as recently as July, Geofeedia still had access to monitor tweets.

As a result of this, the ACLU of California made the following call to social media networks:

  • No Data Access for Developers of Surveillance Tools: Social media companies should not provide data access to developers who have law enforcement clients and allow their product to be used for surveillance, including the monitoring of information about the political, religious, social views, racial background, locations, associations or activities of any individual or group of individuals.
  • Clear, Public & Transparent Policies: Social media companies should adopt clear, public, and transparent policies to prohibit developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes. The companies should publicly explain these policies, how they will be enforced, and the consequences of such violations. These policies should also appear prominently in specific materials and agreements with developers.
  • Oversight of Developers: Social media companies should institute both human and technical auditing mechanisms designed to effectively identify potential violations of this policy, both by the developers and end users, and take swift action for violations.

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