ACLU Dumps Docs On Social Media Monitoring Firm Geofeedia; Social Media Platforms Respond By Dumping Geofeedia

from the if-access-is-the-only-thing-you're-selling,-what-happens-when-it's-gone? dept

Surveilling citizens engaged in First Amendment-protected activity? That's just how Geofeedia rolls.

Records obtained by the ACLU show the private company pitched its "firehose" connection to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a way to monitor the situation in Ferguson (during the 2014 protests) and "stay one step ahead of the rioters."

Geofeedia itself didn't do anything illegal. It simply provided a one-stop shop for social media monitoring of public posts. It's the way it was pitched that was a problem. Rather than sell it as a way to keep law enforcement informed of criminal activity, its sales team highlighted its usefulness in monitoring protestors and other First Amendment activity.

The documents the ACLU obtained show the company paid these three social media services for "firehose" attachments -- beefed-up API calls that allowed Geofeedia to access more public posts faster than law enforcement could do on its own.

Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to the Instagram API, a stream of public Instagram user posts. This data feed included any location data associated with the posts by users. Instagram terminated this access on September 19, 2016.

Facebook had provided Geofeedia with access to a data feed called the Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be a tool for media companies and brand purposes, and which allowed Geofeedia to obtain a ranked feed of public posts from Facebook that mention a specific topic, including hashtags, events, or specific places. Facebook terminated this access on September 19, 2016.

Twitter did not provide access to its “Firehose,” but has an agreement, via a subsidiary, to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets.

Of all of these companies, only Twitter took proactive steps to prevent API calls from being used for proxy surveillance.

In February, Twitter added additional contract terms to try to further safeguard against surveillance. But our records show that as recently as July 11th, Geofeedia was still touting its product as a tool to monitor protests. After learning of this, Twitter sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter.

Well, it's all over now. It's not just Twitter demanding Geofeedia stop turning its service into an extension of law enforcement's worst urges. It's everyone. The ACLU dumped its documents and, shortly after, the companies dumped Geofeedia.

After reviewing the report, Facebook cutoff Geofeedia’s access to commercially available data from its social platform and from Instagram, which it owns.

On Tuesday, Twitter said they were also cutting off the Chicago social media company’s access.

So much for the business model. Twitter cited its long-standing policy of preventing its service from being used as a surveillance tool -- a policy it exercised earlier this year when cutting off Dataminr's access to its APIs for selling its collected communications to US intelligence agencies.

Facebook simply stated that Geofeedia's API use was "unauthorized," something it probably should have realized well before the ACLU shamed it into cutting off the company's access.

Geofeedia, meanwhile, has stated it will meet with all "stakeholders," which apparently means Twitter, Facebook, and various government agencies. Users of these services haven't been invited to do anything more than vote with their digital feet.

For all the call-and-response, the underlying fact is that Geofeedia didn't have access to anything any individual user didn't. It may have had more of it faster and a front end that made surveillance/monitoring easier, but it wasn't gathering tweets or posts from private accounts or otherwise accessing anything not already viewable by the public.

But its sales tactics were a bit concerning. The company pretty much encouraged law enforcement agencies to engage in some very questionable monitoring.

Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle could easily target neighborhoods where people of color live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as “overt threats.” We know for a fact that in Oakland and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests.

Geofeedia claims to be interested in protecting the civil liberties of Americans, while at the same time nudging law enforcement agencies towards undermining those protections. Because of that, it's now probably looking at handing out some refunds, seeing as its all-seeing-APIs have been cut off and all it can really offer at this point is part-owner positions in a fast-growing pariahship.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 4:25am

    Once again the social media companies only act when the storm starts to build on their platforms, rather than pro-actively checking whether commercial interests are sticking to the terms of service.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 5:11am

    > It's the way it was pitched that was a problem.

    Problem to whom? If people want things to be private, why post them publicly?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 5:24am

      Re:

      "Problem to whom? If people want things to be private, why post them publicly?"

      If they were paying for API calls, there was probably analytics data in that feed that isn't public. Which is to say, NO it isn't publicly available data.

      The failure here is at a lower level, since the bulk of that analytics data probably was ORIGINALLY captured in a way that violated the 4th amendment.

      Twitter and Facebook aren't pissed about that these guys are doing. They are pissed that it might expose the depth of their intrusion into their victems lives.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      AEIO_ (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 6:13am

      Re: It's the way it was pitched that was a problem.

      My wife and I have lots of beautiful stuff, here are pictures of it all. I live in this wonderful neighborhood at this specific address. And we're leaving the country right now for an entire month at this great resort.

      (Finally gets back home, house is completely cleaned out.) Robbers! How in the world could they have (a) figured this out and (b) done this to us?

      A: UNKNOWN: they must be psychic. Or Kreskin.
      B: With a moving van. Maybe two.

      --------

      My Facebook profile has my correct phone number. EVERYTHING else is bogus and literally says so. If you want me to be your "Friend", then you'll need to be MY friend to start with.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:57am

        Re: Re: It's the way it was pitched that was a problem.

        OR

        C: Whole thing was planned. And you are now getting all the insurance money.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 5:30am

    I have some swamp land to sell you

    If you believe for a minute that the social web sites didn't know how the feeds were being used I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you. They only act upset after it has been discovered. They will find ways to hide it better in the future and we will be monitored with or without our knowledge and consent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:01am

    Records obtained by the ACLU show the private company pitched its "firehose" connection to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a way to monitor the situation in Ferguson (during the 2014 protests) and "stay one step ahead of the rioters."

    Geofeedia itself didn't do anything illegal. It simply provided a one-stop shop for social media monitoring of public posts. It's the way it was pitched that was a problem. Rather than sell it as a way to keep law enforcement informed of criminal activity, its sales team highlighted its usefulness in monitoring protestors and other First Amendment activity.

    Since when are riots First Amendment-protected activity?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:09am

      Re:

      A few rioters take advantage of a protest, and you label all protesters rioters, and use that as the excuse to trample on the protesters rights. That is the way of tyranny.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:50am

        Re: Re:

        > trample on the protesters rights

        What specific rights are being infringed? You have freedom of speech, not freedom of anonymity.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 8:18am

        Re: Re:

        First off, what happened in Ferguson was hardly "a few rioters." But either way, that's irrelevant, because what is actually being discussed is not the rioting, but the marketing.

        As the article reports, they pitched their software as a way to keep ahead of rioters. (This is even cited as a direct quote, not a paraphrase.) Tim distorts this into "its sales team highlighted its usefulness in monitoring protestors and other First Amendment activity."

        Since when are riots First Amendment-protected activity?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Digitari, 17 Oct 2016 @ 9:11am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Since when are riots First Amendment-protected activity?"


          ^ This is why I say..

          "perception is greater than reality"

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 10:57am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Since when are riots First Amendment-protected activity?"

          Correct. That would be the second amendment.

          Failure to respect the first, third, fourth, and fifth, invariably results in the first being abandoned as a reasonable remedy in favor of the second.

          I find it hilarious that cable news cabal blathers on about how candidate X or candidate Y is against the Constitution.

          The data the cabal news uses for micro-targeting their content is obtained by violating the 4th, and their abandonment of their duty as the fourth estate in favor of propagandizing, taints the nations ability to redress grievances by means of the 1st.

          Bitching about being circumvented, only has merit if you're not the person fucking shit up.

          Yep. Americans are rioting. I consider it fair warning for whats next. Apparently the newsies aren't so forward thinking. You know that because they are still saying dumb shit, instead of changing their names and leaving town.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Mason Wheeler (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 12:17pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            OK, you're not even trying here.

            There is nothing "well regulated" about a riot, pretty much by definition.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 1:13pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              It was well regulated enough that it required FBI Cessna 208's flying overhead to keep up with it's movements.

              If the fed doesn't feel compelled to expand the definition of "well regulated", which having read the respective federal code they haven't, then the definition thereof is left to interpretation.

              So as far as I'm concerned two guys sharing a bong on the street corner is sufficiently organized to meet the standard.

              And this speaks to the fact that the DNC has never had any real intention of approaching gun control in any reasonable way. As the definitions that would deny me that interpretation before the law, have never been approached by them in any serious way. It is just one of the many sales pitches the Demopublican alliance uses to keep Americans deluded while they toil in servitude.

              So there are many ways of interpeting the phrase "well regulated". But at the moment there are only four that really matter.

              The first comes before the guard is called up. The second comes after the guard is called up. The third comes after the guard realizes it is pointing its guns at its own families. The fourth involves no guns at all. Just carpenters.

              At which point, jackass T.V. commentators who've never driven a nail in their lives, will have a completely different (if brief) view of the working class in this country.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:40am

    Thank you

    *THIS* is why I read TechDirt.

    Thank you, Tim!

    E

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 7:51am

    That's the problem with all these internet surveillance-type companies that promise deep-pocketed clients solutions to a perceived problem that is hard to define at best, and often not even considered a problem until convinced by the company offering such services to fix it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Agonistes (profile), 17 Oct 2016 @ 8:15am

    Gosh, its almost as if Geofeedia for some reason thought just openly stating what service they were marketing directly to their federal clients was A-OK. I'm sure the government helped them clean up their 'marketing language' even though they probably already are the only seller of said service...but hey, its all good, there's a rider attached to the contract that says to disregard that contract in favor of the newly negotiated ambiguous Schrödinger's contract. The publicly-available paperwork is all in order if anyone wants to file a FOIA, wait for 4.5 years, then not get it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 9:11am

    What is wrong with you people?

    "law enforcement [...] could easily target neighborhoods where people of color live". You don't see why someone would have a problem with Geofeedia saying that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Oct 2016 @ 8:52pm

      Re: What is wrong with you people?

      People of color are disproportionately affected by riots and related property damage. In many cases, those communities are where police are most needed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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