Geofeedia No Longer Welcome to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook's Data
Do you ever wonder just how much you've actually shared in your last post? Nothing, you might conclude; a harmless food picture garnished with a few select hashtags, but the post's very existence is being documented. Hidden, unaddressed information is circulating to various companies from the moment you posted. Hashtags are being analysed, keywords seized upon by hungry surveillance companies set on devouring the information you've offered up only to spit it into the laps of law enforcement. Wait, the police!? Yes, in this day and age social media is an open wealth of information for surveillance companies and law enforcement to use. Nothing you share is safe. Location-based tagging creates a map of your frequent hangouts, favourite haunts, and home address, though hopefully you're smart enough to not broadcast something like that online.

Geofeedia, a location-based analytics company, provides real-time, public information to their clients. Basically, they monitor social media in a way that allows clients to keep an eye on social chatter, specific areas, or trifling groups of people. With a range of clients in private or public sectors, some categories include "corporations, media and journalism groups, marketing and advertising firms, educational companies, cities, schools, sports teams, and the aviation sector," as specified on their website, "including law enforcement officials across the country." Geofeedia markets itself as a tool for law enforcement, and that's where things have gotten a bit tricky.

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have restricted Geofeedia's access to public user posts following an article released by the ACLU of California. After obtaining public records documenting  the use of social media spying software, the social media giants were called upon to revoke access to their data. The call to action is an effort to protect users who are simply expressing their opinion, as is their right. However, in doing so on a social platform monitored by Geofeedia, people are inadvertently stepping into a dangerous spotlight.
Screenshots of email correspondence with clients show that Geofeedia had access to:
  • Instagram's API, a stream of public user posts, including location; access terminated 19 September 2016.
  • Facebook's Topic Feed API, a data feed of public posts specifying topic, including hashtags, events, and location; access terminated 19 September 2016.
  • A searchable Twitter database to screen public tweets (not Firehose); Twitter has sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter to stop surveillance, but has not ended the relationship.

On top of that, Geofeedia had developer access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter granting it "access to a flow of data that would otherwise require an individual to 'scrape' user data off of the services in an automated fashion that is prohibited in the terms of service." This data was made available to 500 law enforcement and public safety clients, according to the company
Funneling user data to any company that will pay has put activists and protesters standing in support of social causes at risk. It was specifically stated that Geofeedia information was used by police to monitor protests in Oakland and Baltimore. However, Geofeedia isn't the only surveillance company gorging law enforcement agencies with information; according to Mashable Media Sonar, a self-proclaimed social media intelligence solution, has marketed their services to Fresno Police Department. In an unrelated report by the ACLU in December 2015, it is said that Media Sonar suggested that police could use their service to screen for sensitive hashtags, like #BlackLivesMatter, #ImUnarmed, #PoliceBrutality, #ItsTimeforChange and #DontShoot. In the same vein, the ACLU found that Fresno police were utilising another social media monitoring software called Beware. The software automatically runs addresses as an officer is en-route, cross-checking names with public data and designating the person with a color-coded threat level. Exactly how the software determines the threat level of a person has not been made public by Intrado, the company behind Beware.

ACLU NorCal Blog
There are countless examples of police inappropriately monitoring social chatter, as documented on the ACLU blog. Regardless of whether the data is used to unfairly combat or sabotage protests or target a certain group or creed of person, it's a violation.
All those harmless tweets in which you expressed your opinion in the hopes of prompting a public debate may have been looked over by the police, potentially landing you on a watch list. After requesting records from 63 police departments, sheriffs, and district attorneys in California, the ACLU has discovered that 40% of the agencies have opted into social networking surveillance tools. To make matters worse, the use of such software is not included in any official document, public notice, nor has it been put to a vote in either community or lawmaker forums. There are no limits or guidelines for use of such a terribly powerful tool. What horrifying reality do we live in where police are able to monitor your social media presence? 

And Now, We Wait

Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing. It runs absolutely rampant on the internet, seemingly consequence-free. A little wiser today, we see that this is not the case. Saying something nasty on a social outlet can plant you squarely in a surveillance database since certain words, phrases, hashtags, or locations are now screened for. The very social platforms on which founders encourage expression have failed to hold true to their values. Fault lies not with the platforms or the founders themselves, but in the severe lack of anti-surveillance policies. Facebook and Instagram have nothing in place to prevent their data from being used in surveillance, whereas Twitter has a rule prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance in addition to a Developer Policy prohibiting the use of user data "to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users." 

As a solution to this sticky situation, the ACLU has proposed that social networks instate baseline rules:
  • No data access for developers of surveillance tools. 
  • Clear, public & transparent policies to guard against developers desiring to use data for surveillance. 
  • Oversight of developers, of the human and automated variety, in which policy violations are scouted for. 

Californians are taking matters into their own hands by proposing laws against social networking surveillance. People are being mobilized to put an end to the unrepentant scrutiny and potential discrimination. Will you join the cause?

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