REPORT: Social Media Giants Helped Police Track Ferguson, Baltimore Protests

By Sameer Rao Oct 12, 2016

According to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), three of the most widely used social media platforms provided user data to a company whose product was used by law enforcement to track protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore.

The ACLU of California published records yesterday (October 11) indicating that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram turned over user data to Geofeedia, a company whose surveillance program was used by law enforcement agencies around the country. 

The ACLU learned about agreements between Geofeedia and the social media giants via documents obtained through public information requests to 63 California law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices. Included in the documents were email exchanges with police, in which Geofeedia representatives boasted about agreements with the companies; in one of those emails, the representative listed "Protests—which we covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success" as one of its uses. 

According to the report, the ACLU informed the companies about this report before it was released. Twitter subsequently announced that it is suspending Geofeedia’s access to user data "based on information" in the report. Facebook and Instagram, which operate under the same company umbrella, cut ties in September. 

Geofeedia’s CEO released a statement, cited by Mashable, defending its policies, saying that they safeguard against "inappropriate use:"

Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software; 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. 

That said, we understand, given the ever-changing nature of digital technology, that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights. 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.

The report also cited Geofeedia’s use by police departments in Oakland and Baltimore to monitor protesters. 

The ACLU of California, in tandem with the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change, wrote letters to the companies demanding they take stronger steps to prevent developers like Geofeedia from encroaching on users’ rights in the future.

(H/t East Bay Express, The Washington Post)