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Facebook, Twitter and Instagram-based surveillance tool helped police track and arrest minorities during protests

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
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Userdata from some of the largest social media networks, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram was being employed by a developer selling surveillance tools to law enforcement agencies, according to a freshly published report by ACLU of Northern California. This special real-time surveillance feed, developed by Geofeedia, was being used by the police to track down crimes, specially racially charged protest in Baltimore last year.

This surveillance tool used the social media company’s APIs to form real-time mapping data, which updated the moment a picture, post or tweet was made public by anyone in the geographical area of the protest(in this context). This tool was used by law enforcement agencies to not only identify protestors, but in some cases arrest and even batter them without rhyme or reason. The company proudly boasts about its surveillance information being used by over 500 law enforcement agencies to track and respond to crime.

Ever since the investigation report has been published, all three social media services have pulled access to relevant API for Geofeedia. Instagram has cut off its access to public user posts, Facebook has pulled the plug for its topic-based search results containing user posts and Twitter has also suspended the compay’s access to public user data.

Matt Cagle, Policy Attorney with the ACLU-NorCal Technology and Civil Liberties Project, in the official investigation reports,

We first learned about these agreements with Geofeedia from responses to public records requests to 63 California law enforcement agencies. These records revealed the fast expansion of social media surveillance with little-to-no debate or oversight.

But as we continued to comb through thousands of pages of documents, we saw emails from Geofeedia representatives telling law enforcement about its special access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram user data.

ACLU report also have evidence that Geofeedia’s location analytics and tracking tool was used to monitor the public unrest after the death of an Afro-american guy named Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The report includes a testimonial provided by the company to a police department, and also sheds light on the fact that the tool was being used to monitor social media posts in real-time and running facial recognition on protestors to locate and arrest them. The functionality of the real-time social media analytics tools has been described in the YouTube video attached here.

Geofeedia had already been operating its services and providing users access to real-time data for the past five years. Without the investigation by ACLU, the analytics firm would have continued operations without any damage to its brand or products. Commenting on the unjust usage of social media tools, and the negligence of these tech giants towards the same, Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California, says,

These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police. The ACLU shouldn’t have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing. The companies need to enact strong public policies and robust auditing procedures to ensure their platforms aren’t being used for discriminatory surveillance.

One cannot fathom why Geofeedia was allowed to access userdata from social media network and surface analytics data for the police to use, when it violated numerous clauses in the platform’s developer policies. A Facebook spokesperson supplied the same reason, i.e Geofeedia’s access to the API was terminated because the company was not using the data for media or brand purposes. The company wasn’t using the requested data for authorized purposes, thus, all of its connections have been terminated.

But, the story doesn’t end right there. Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris has released a statement in response to the investigation report from ACLU. In the statement, he says,

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.

Though the investigative report only highlights the illict wrong-doings the tool was used for, Harris lays focus on the positive side — response and recovery efforts during Boston Marathon or Hurricane Matthew. He also states that ACLU has made false accusations against the company, and it has clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of the surveillance in the first place. 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. He concludes by adding that,

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.

Though my only question to you is — Will we ever see the evident rise of such technologies that can truly be helpful in monitoring or controling crime and civil unrest in the country? Comment your thoughts down below.

A hands-on guy fascinated by new apps, technologies and enterprise products.

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