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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Filed Under: apis, government, monitoring, social media, surveillance
Companies: aclu, facebook, geofeedia, instagram, twitter

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

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


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

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