A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has highlighted the way US police forces were monitoring the social media accounts of individuals involved in recent protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, and how the social media sites were complying.
The report highlights how police forces overseeing both protests were using a programme called Geofeedia, which provides special feeds of the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts of those participating.
Social Media Analysis
Geofeedia (which we wrote about earlier this year after its use in Denver) is a Chicago-based organisation which provides monitoring equipment to around 500 law enforcement agencies across the US and beyond.
They describe their product as being “a location-based analytics tool that gives customers the ability to predict, analyse and act on real-time social media content from anywhere in the world with a single click.”
The problem with this is that civil liberties campaigners, and plenty of other commentators, have suggested that the technology is being applied disproportionately against black and ethnic minority citizens. And that suggests there is a problem with the data protection of all three social media networks.
Nicole Ozer, from the ACLU of California which has published this report, told the Washington Post that social media networks had to be doing more to stop their networks being used for discriminatory surveillance and should “protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police.”
Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, went even further saying ““Police spying on social media has a disproportionate impact on black people.”
The Chief Executive of Geofeedia, Phil Harris has responded to this report, insisting that they ensure that profiling is not carried out by their end-users. But his words do not seem to have convinced the social media networks involved.
To their credit, all three networks have now begun blocking Geofeedia’s access to their data. According to the Washington Post, Facebook and Instagram suspended all access on 19th September. Twitter released a statement this week saying Geofeedia’s commercial access was suspended as a direct result of the ACLU report. This came after they sent the company a “cease and desist” letter.
Facebook claimed that they would only ever have been able to access data which it’s users had labelled public. The ACLU released communications which it said proved Geofeedia was accessing private data from all three sites as well.
It will be hard to ascertain the truth about private data without further information, but it is clear that the report has had the desired effect. It also shows how acutely aware social media sites such as these three are of the need to be seen to be protecting their user’s privacy and data.
Geofeedia will of course continue, although without these special data supplies they job will be harder. And it should be remembered that they use data from plenty of other social media sites besides these three, and of course, there are numerous other companies out there offering similar services.
So the message to social media users, both in the US and around the world, is to be aware that your social media content is out there for the whole world to see. And there are more than a few organisations who may be looking closer than you think.