Social Media Analytics, Meet Big Brother
The American Civil Liberties Union recently uncovered evidence that led Twitter, Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary to stop sharing data with Geofeedia, a firm accused of improperly collecting social media data on protest groups, and sharing that information with numerous law enforcement agencies.
Geofeedia, a developer of location-based analytics, had been marketing its technology to law enforcement agencies. It was used for such purposes as monitoring Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU of Northern California uncovered the practice after requesting public records information from 63 law enforcement agencies in California.
The documents revealed that Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to streams of user posts, called the "Instagram API," until that practice was terminated last month, according to Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties policy attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.
The data also shows that Facebook provided Geofeedia access to its Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be used for media and branding purposes, according to the ACLU. The API gave the firm access to a ranked feed of public posts that mention a specific topic.
Geofeedia had access to the Facebook's API source information, said Facebook spokesperson Jodi Seth.
Using APIs the way Geofeedia did is a "violation of our platform policies, which prohibit the sale or transfer of data," she told TechNewsWorld.
"This developer only had access to data that people chose to make public," Facebook said in a statement. "Its access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy, which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data using the Facebook Platform. If a developer uses our APIs in a way that has not been authorized, we will take swift action to stop them and we will end our relationship altogether if necessary."
Facebook terminated Geofeedia's access to its APIs last month, after learning about the infractions, Seth said.
While not providing access to its Firehose technology, Twitter did allow a subsidiary to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to public tweets, the ACLU said.
Twitter earlier this year added contract language designed to protect users against further surveillance techniques, the organization noted.
Based on information in the ACLU report, Twitter suspended @Geofeedia's commercial access to Twitter data.
The ACLU's Cagle acknowledges in a post on the organization's site that "neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes," Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler pointed out to TechNewsWorld.
The ACLU post goes on to say that "Twitter does have a 'longstanding rule' prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance as well as a developer policy that bans the use of Twitter data to 'investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.'"
Twitter this spring cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from access to Dataminr, a firm that scans social media activity for information on potential terrorist attacks and political unrest, Wexler noted, pointing to a Wall Street Journal story published in May.
Facebook severed its agreement with Geofeedia because it violated Facebook's data-sharing policies, noted Brandi Collins, campaign director of Color of Change, which had joined the ACLU and the Center for Justice in making the document request.
Facebook's decision to abandon the agreement suggests that the methods Geofeedia was employing were illegal, Collins told TechNewsWorld.
"More broadly, we should be concerned that police departments are wasting critical public resources on monitoring the social media profiles of the people in their communities, they're supposed to be protecting," she said.
"Geofeedia brags about its success monitoring protesters in Ferguson," Collins remarked, "but how does tracking people who are protesting police killings of unarmed black people make any of us safe?"