Society

Social Media Sites Helped Police Track Protesters

| by Zach Cohen
Trayvon Martin Protest in NYCTrayvon Martin Protest in NYC

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allowed Geofeedia, a monitoring tool marketed to law enforcement, special access to the social media sites' user data, which was used to track protesters.

In known partnerships, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provided Geofeedia with access to public posts, according to the ACLU of California, which recently obtained numerous documents related to the social media monitoring software. Geofeedia's enhanced access allowed it to monitor public data in a manner that would normally require a process called "scraping," which is prohibited under the social media sites' terms of service. 

A Geofeedia sales representative said in an email that "through our user track you can pull private information for Instagram and Twitter."

Unions and activist groups are labeled "overt threats," in a document titled "Usage Overview." The document goes on to describe how Geofeedia can "gather intel based on known potential threats (usernames)."

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Emails between Geofeedia and police departments contain exchanges in which sales representatives bragged that their platform "has numerous uses," including "protests - which we covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success."

One case study document from the company describes how Baltimore police used Geofeedia during the protests following the death-in-custody of Freddie Gray. "In some cases," the document states, "police officers were even able to run social media photos through facial recognition technology to discover rioters with outstanding warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd."

Baltimore Police Department Sgt. Andrew Vaccaro said that he considered each of the arrests, "a win."

Geofeedia monitors 12 different social media platforms, including "Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, and Viddy." Geofeedia has access to over 2 billion "historical social posts with location." 

More than 500 law enforcement and public safety agencies use Geofeedia, which provides services such as image recognition, "location based social intelligence for post-investigation analysis, real time monitoring, and mapping social profiles," according to documents obtained by the ACLU of California.

The ACLU says the documents "revealed the fast expansion of social media surveillance with little-to-no debate or oversight."

Of the 63 California law enforcement agencies the ACLU contacted, 52 responded and 21 report using social media surveillance software. Of those, none could demonstrate a record of public debate, or had record of a policy governing the use of such software.

Since the ACLU's report, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have suspended Geofeedia's enhanced access to their data. 

Sources: ACLU (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) / Photo credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

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