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October 13, 2016

Geo Data Vendor Draws Civil Rights Scrutiny

George Leopold

(Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

Social media data feeds being packaged by location-based analytics platform vendors and recently marketed as police surveillance tools are drawing fire from a leading U.S. civil liberties group who insists the technology is being to target lawful protests.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported this week that Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that tracks social media posts to deliver real-time surveillance data, has been marketing the tool to law enforcement agencies to monitor protesters. In response, the ACLU also reported that Facebook has cut Geofeedia’s access to topic-based public user posts while Instagram also cut off the firm’s access to public user posts.

The civil liberties group added that Google has “taken some recent steps to rein in Geofeedia” but has not ended their data relationship.

Geofeedia moved swiftly to quiet the firestorm around its analytics platform. The company’s homepage contains a statement titled, “Commitment to Freedom of Speech and Civil Liberties”. The statement notes that it provides real-time data to “a broad range of private and public sector clients” that include corporations, media and journalism groups as well as marketing and advertising firms.

“Geofeedia is committed to the principles of personal privacy, transparency and both the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to individual rights,” the company stated. “Our platform provides some clients, including law enforcement officials across the country, with a critical tool in helping to ensure public safety while protecting civil rights and liberties.”

Company officials added they would continue to work with groups such as the ACLU along with police “to make sure that we do everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms.”

Nevertheless, the ACLU said this week its search of public records from 63 California law enforcement agencies revealed the “fast expansion of social media surveillance with little-to-no debate or oversight.”

Researchers said they discovered emails from Geofeedia to law enforcement disclosing what company representatives described, according to an ACLU attorney, as “special access” to user data from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

The group also asserted that Facebook and Instagram provided Geofeedia with access to their APIs. In the case of Instagram, the data feed was said to include “location data associated with the posts by users,” according to the ACLU, which added that Instagram terminated access in September.

The group also asserted that Geofeedia gained access to Facebook’s “Topic Feed” API that allowed access to hashtags, events and locations along with mentions of specific topics. The ACLU said Facebook also terminated this access last month.

Based on ACLU report, Twitter said this week it was “immediately suspending [Geofeedia’s] commercial access to Twitter data.” The company also has moved to provide safeguards against surveillance, including sending Geofeedia a cease and desist letter, the ACLU reported.

Meanwhile, the civil liberties group is calling on social network companies to deny data access to the developers of surveillance tools, adopt policies prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes and implementing stronger oversight of developers.

ACLU said Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris has requested a meeting with the group.

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