Black Main Street

ACLU Reports That Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter Helped Police Target and Monitor Black Activists

The ACLU recently announced that social media giants, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been giving Geofeedia access to user information that helped law enforcement agencies monitor, track and target activists of color. Geofeedia is a location-based social media monitoring company that provides real-time data on social media users in a specified area.

Emails between law enforcement and representatives of Geofeedia revealed that the company was given “special access” to the social media sites, even referring to a “partnership” with Instagram and Facebook.

Geofeedia sources all social media activity within the targeted area from social media sites. Though the posts initially appear as dots on the map, they can be interacted with to reveal the content of each individual post.

With this data, law enforcement is able to monitor specific keywords, the people using them and the locations they are in when suing them. For example keywords like “rally”, “protest”, or “march” can be tracked, along with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter.

According to the ACLU, they have uncovered that Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have all provided Geofeedia with varying levels of access to this data, which it then used as a bargaining chip when negotiating with law enforcement. There has been no numbers released as of yet specifying how many people were targeted, however it is said that this was directly involved in the Baltimore Police Department’s response to the Freddie Gray protests. According to the study, the BPD renewed their Geofeedia contract only days before the protests. The study also revealed that law enforcement used facial recognition software to identify specific protestors from their social media photos. They then matched that information to outstanding warrants and arrested protestors “directly from the crowd.”

The Washington Post reported that Geofeedia provides 500 law enforcement agencies with surveillance data. Specifically pointing out that the company has been “monitoring for protests” with “several DAs from around the country.” One email between Geofeedia and police says a product feature “covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success.”

In response, Facebook, which owns Instagram, said Geofeedia only had access to data people had already made public:

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 [user data] 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.

In response to the announcement, all three sites—Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—have terminated Geofeedia’s access to their data.
Brandi Collins, campaign director of online racial justice organization Color of Change said in a recent statement:

Facebook and especially Twitter have built their brands on the backs of Black users. CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have openly courted activists and organizations in the Movement for Black Lives to engage with their platforms. This makes each of their involvement with social media surveillance tools used against Black activists all the more disturbing.

Most troubling is that Geofeedia is just one part of an entire economy of mass surveillance tools that source similar location-based social media information. Dataminr, MediaSonar, X1 Social Discovery, and Dunami, all have similar scanning, keyword filtering, and real-time geolocation features. Whether these services are collaborating with law enforcement for mass-surveillance has not been revealed, but the conversation on privacy and fears of police overreach continues.


What is your opinion on this recently released news? Do you think Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are at fault or weren’t away of what Geofeedia was doing? 

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1 comment

Ellyn McNamara December 1, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Simple. Turn off your geolocations when posted on social media site. Otherwise you are handing that information over to be aggregated anyway.


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