Last month we learned that police in Baltimore and Seattle have been caught using a social media spying program called Geofeedia, which allows police to track people’s location based on their social media posts. Seattle police said they stopped using Geofeedia after local uproar, but the company says about 500 other law enforcement agencies are using its products already, meaning this surveillance virus is just beginning to spread.
When the stories about Baltimore and Seattle broke, we learned police were using the software for surveillance on a mass scale instead of targeting individual criminal investigations, specifically monitoring people protesting police misconduct.
As I wrote at the time, one Baltimore city official admitted to using Geofeedia “to help plan for community events,” which has nothing to do with crime and could well mean using it to make First Amendment-protected protests more difficult to organize.
Likewise, Seattle police seem to have used Geofeedia to track Black Lives Matter events, showing up en masse at protests that were never advertised beyond social media posts among friends. That level of police scrutiny almost certainly has a chilling effect on free speech, especially speech calling for police reform.
But it gets worse.
An ACLU report published Tuesday reveals that in Baltimore and Ferguson, the big three social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—provided special data feeds to Geofeedia so police could conduct invasive surveillance on police brutality protesters. The networks gave Geofeedia user data including “the locations, photos and other information,” the Washington Post reports.
This confirms the suspicions that Baltimore official’s comment raised, and shows Geofeedia is more widely in use than initial reports in September suggested.
The one silver lining in this is that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—though apparently lacking their own pro-privacy principles—at least care enough about their bottom lines to understand their users won’t be happy they helped police spy on protesters (plus, realistically, lots of other people who just happened to be in the same geographic area for unrelated reasons).
“The social media companies cut off Geofeedia’s access to the streams of user data in recent weeks after the ACLU discovered them and alerted the companies about looming public exposure,” the Post says, with Facebook (which owns Instagram) claiming Geofeedia was accessing user data in unauthorized ways.
That’s hard to believe since the ACLU discovered emails in which Geofeedia employees described a “confidential legally binding agreement with Facebook” for data and Geofeedia customer access to “private information for Instagram and Twitters [sic].”
But regardless of whether Facebook was on board with exactly what Geofeedia was helping police do, there are a few conclusions we can draw here:
First, if you ever attend a political protest of any persuasion, it is safe to assume your social media activity—including, perhaps, communications you believe to be private—will be actively monitored by local police.
Second, Geofeedia will continue to gain customers in local police departments across the country.
And third, once those accounts are created and those surveillance abilities gained, this will be a difficult overgrowth of government to root out. Pro-liberty activists should begin proactively addressing this issue at the state and city level, pushing for prohibitions on police use of Geofeedia specifically and mass social media surveillance by law enforcement in general.