We missed this earlier. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California has acquired records, including emails, showing that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provided user data to Geofeedia, a social media monitoring product developer, that is marketed to law enforcement agencies as a surveillance tool to monitor activists and protesters.

Facebook provided Geofeedia with access to data feed called the Topic Feed API, a tool for media companies to obtain the feed ranks of public posts on Facebook on specific topics, hashtags, events or places. Instagram provided the company access to its API, a stream of public Instagram user post, including location data associated with said posts, while Twitter had an agreement via a subsidiary to provide the company with searchable access to its database of public tweets.

Note that all three companies have since terminated their agreements with Geofeedia, and do not provide any information anymore. However, the problem lies in the fact that Geofeedia even got access to this data as a developer, that would otherwise have to be scraped illegally to obtain. The company was then able to share this data with what it claims to be 500 law enforcement agencies, without any oversight and enabling them to target activist groups and monitor protests, as was the case in Oakland and Baltimore.

Interestingly, Geofeedia markets itself as a cloud-based, location-based analytics platform, which claims to “predict, analyze, and act on real-time social media content by location from anywhere in the world – with a single click”. Other than for law enforcement, it also provides products for marketing and advertising, education and corporate security, and is one of the hundreds of companies that does so. While Geofeedia’s contracts happened to be analysed by ALCU, leading to the social media companies dropping its contract, there is no clear accountability to stop other developers from doing the exact same thing.

In fact, Geofeedia is not too subtle about marketing its product to law enforcement stating ‘with public safety at stake’ as a tagline, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s the only platform to marketing to law enforcement, or that Facebook and Twitter are unaware of such usage of their products. As of now, only Twitter has a rule that prohibits the sale of user data for surveillance and bans developers from using Twitter data “to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.” It is important for all social media platforms that share data to formulate such policies, and ensure their implementation, rather than waiting for accidental exposures to user data mismanagement.

Image source: Rob Pongsajapan under CC BY 2.0