Report: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram Helped Police Track Minorities in Ferguson and Baltimore

The social media companies provided data access to a surveillance product that is marketed to law enforcement as a tool to target activists of color.

The Facebook website as displayed on a laptop computer in 2011
The Facebook website as displayed on a laptop computer in 2011 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A social media surveillance program used by police to track and monitor protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore relied heavily on data it obtained from social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to a report released by the ACLU on Tuesday.

Geofeedia is a Chicago-based company that developed a social-media-monitoring product that it marketed to law enforcement as a tool for monitoring activists and protesters (pdf). The company boasts that it works with over 500 law-enforcement and public safety agencies (pdf), providing location-based social intelligence for post-investigation analysis, real-time monitoring and social-profile mapping. The company offers image recognition, the monitoring of 12 social platforms and over 2 billion historical social posts with location.

According to the ACLU, the social media companies provided Geofeedia with data that included friend lists, photos, locations and other information posted publicly by users, and because it obtained access to this data as a developer, it was able to access a flow of data that would otherwise require an individual to scrape user data off the services in a way that violates the terms of service on the platforms. In other words, Geofeedia exploited a loophole in the terms of service.

After the ACLU contacted the social networks and let them know about the surveillance activities happening behind the scenes, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all cut Geofeedia’s access to their data, but the ACLU says that stronger measures will need to be taken to ensure that there are public policies in place prohibiting surveillance on the platforms. From the ACLU report:

Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color. 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.

The ACLU of Northern California has done significant work studying the use of social media surveillance by law enforcement. After requesting records from 63 law-enforcement agencies in California, the organization found that 20 of the agencies have acquired social networking surveillance tools, and many of them have done so in the last year.

The ACLU says that the government should not have access to social media speech for surveillance purposes and is confident that social media companies that pride themselves on being platforms for free speech will agree.

The CEO of Geofeedia has asked to meet with the ACLU.