Facebook, Twitter and Instagram canvas prints have previously provided users’ data to a software company that aids police surveillance programs and targets protesters of color, according to government records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU revealed on Tuesday that the technology corporations gave “special access” to Geofeedia, a controversial social media monitoring company that partners with law enforcement and has marketed its services as a tool to track Black Lives Matter activists.
In response to the findings, all three companies have announced measures to cut off Geofeedia’s access to certain data streams, even though critics say the corporations need to adopt broader policies that prevent this kind of surveillance and data sharing.
The ACLU’s past records requests in California have determined that at least 13 police agencies have used or acquired Geofeedia, a Chicago-based startup that has worked with law enforcement across the US. Emails between the company and police revealed that Geofeedia had developer-level access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which means it could review streams of user content in ways that regular members of the public cannot, according to the ACLU.
“The fact that third parties are making big money off of the sale and trading of our data with law enforcement is a huge problem and one that any social media user in this country or beyond should be disgusted and surprised by,” said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, which has urged companies to end their relationships with Geofeedia. “It clearly has a chilling effect on democratic protests.”
Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to Instagram’s API, or application programming interface, which is a feed of data from users’ public posts that includes their location, ACLU said. The photo-sharing service terminated access to the API last month, ACLU said.
The ACLU said Facebook allowed Geofeedia to use its “Topic Feed API”, a tool geared toward media companies and brands that enabled Geofeedia to obtain a “ranked feed of public posts” centered around specific hashtags, events or places. Facebook also ended this access last month.
Twitter provided Geofeedia with “searchable access” to its database of public tweets. In one email obtained by the ACLU, a Geofeedia representative told police it had a feature that “covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success”, a reference to the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality in Missouri.
Shortly after the release of the report on Tuesday, Twitter said it was “immediately suspending” Geofeedia’s commercial access to its data.