Facebook, Twitter feeds helped police track protesters in US

Social media concerns of SMBs
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provided user data access to a developer of a social media monitoring product that helped police monitor racial protests in US’ Baltimore city, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California report said.

Chicago-based Geofeedia helped police track the protesters after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, the ACLU report said.

“We know for a fact that in Oakland (California) and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests,” the report said.

“We are pleased that after we reported our findings to the companies, 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,” the report published on Tuesday added.

“Based on information in the @ACLU’s report, we are immediately suspending @Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data,” Twitter said in a statement.

ACLU 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,” the report said.

The investigation revealed that 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 too 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,” the report added.