Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter pride themselves when it comes to sharing data with government authorities. But in a report released by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California in October last year, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were found guilty of sharing user data with Geofeedia. This is a location-based analytics platform that is known to be used by American law enforcement agencies as a surveillance tool to track and monitor protest activity.
All three social media networks provided Geofeedia with access to its APIs. For instance, Facebook gave access to its data feed called Topic Feed API, which is a tool used by media companies to access public posts on Facebook related to specific topics or hashtags or events or places. Instagram provided access to its stream of public Instagram posts including location data associated with these posts. Twitter on the other hand provided access to its public database via a subsidiary.
Now Geofeedia calls itself a cloud-based, location-based analytics platform with the expertise in predicting, analysing and acting on real-time social media content by location. It provides this data not only to law enforcement agencies, but also to marketers and advertisers, education and corporate security and so on. According to this particular report, the data was shared with around 500 law enforcement agencies, which helped them track activist groups and monitor protests.
All three social media networks have since terminated their contracts with Geofeedia, and do not share any APIs with the Geofeedia. According to Facebook and Twitter, they were not aware of what activities Geofeedia was up to, which sounds quite hollow.
But the problem lies in the fact that, like Geofeedia, there are several other companies which offer surveillance tools using Facebook and Twitter data. According to this Forbes comment, the ACLU was able to get access to Geofeedia’s contracts was because the police departments directly made the purchase. Considering there are many other surveillance service providers, the authorities will take a very discreet approach when finalising such contracts, making it difficult for anyone to lead these surveillance tactics back to them.