SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Three of the world’s largest social media sites announced Tuesday they would halt surveillance product Geofeedia’s access to user data after the American Civil Liberties Union provided documents showing that law enforcement agencies used the data to monitor activists and protesters.
Documents obtained by the ACLU show Chicago-based Geofeedia teamed up with the Baltimore County Police Department to provide police with “real-time photos and social media information” about social media users’ locations during protests that erupted in response to the in-custody death of Freddie Gray. In the documents, Geofeedia says they alerted police that Baltimore high school students were planning to join the protests and helped police intercept them.
In addition, the ACLU found that the California Department of Justice eCrime Unit acquired social media surveillance software, as did a handful of law enforcement agencies across the state and in the Bay Area. It was not clear whether the monitoring software used was from Geofeedia or other companies.
According to public records obtained by the ACLU, the Bay Area law enforcement agencies that have acquired surveillance software are the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, the Oakland Police Department, San Jose Police Department, Santa Rosa Police Department, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.
ACLU of California’s technology and civil liberties policy director Nicole Ozer wrote in a blog post Tuesday, “We found no evidence in the documents of any public notice, debate, community input, or lawmaker vote about use of this invasive surveillance.”
Ozer said after the ACLU contacted Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) about how the data was being used, the companies cut off Geofeedia’s access on September 19. On Tuesday, Twitter also announced it was suspending Geofeedia’s access to its data.
Facebook told the Washington Post in a statement that Geofeedia only had access to data that users made public. “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.”
Matthew Cagle, the ACLU of Northern California’s technology and civil liberties policy attorney wrote Tuesday, “Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color…We know for a fact that in in Oakland and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests.”
Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said in a statement to the Baltimore Sun that the company has guidelines to protect free speech and ensure that users don’t “inappropriately identify” people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. “Geofeedia will continue to engage with key civil liberty stakeholders, including the ACLU, and the law enforcement community to make sure that we do everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms,” Harris said.
Besides Geofeedia, other surveillance software tools being used by law enforcement in California are MediaSonar and X1 Social Discovery, according to Ozer.
By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.