After civil liberties groups raised concerns that police in Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and other cities were using social media to monitor protesters, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cut off user data access for the company that created the tracking tool.
Poring over emails obtained through a public records request of dozens of law enforcement agencies, the American Civil Liberties Union of California discovered that all three Bay Area social media companies provided data to Geofeedia. The Chicago startup works with more than 500 public safety agencies.
In the digital age, social media has become a powerful platform to expose human rights abuses and connect across issue and geography, the ACLU of California, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change wrote in a letter to Facebook and Instagram. However, these data deals enable dangerous police surveillance that weakens this platforms power, chills free speech and threatens democratic rights.
The groups also noted that these social media tools impact communities of color and low-income areas where protests have erupted over fatal police shootings.
In a statement, Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said the company works with a variety of groups outside law enforcement, and that it provides a tool that aims to ensure public safety while protecting civil liberties.
Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software, Harris said. These include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors.
That said, we understand, given the ever-changing nature of digital technology, that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights.
As more law enforcement agencies use social media data to thwart crime or track down suspects, questions are surfacing about exactly how police are using these tools. At the same time, consumers are increasingly worried about what information tech firms are handing over to government agencies for surveillance or intelligence gathering.