(Adds Geofeedia, ACLU comments)
By Kristina Cooke
SAN FRANCISCO Oct 11 U.S. police departments
used location data and other user information from Twitter,
Facebook and Instagram to track protesters in Ferguson,
Missouri, and Baltimore, according to a report from the American
Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday.
Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and Twitter
shut off the data access of Geofeedia, the
Chicago-based data vendor that provided data to police, in
response to the ACLU findings.
The report comes amid growing concerns among consumers and
regulators about how online data is being used and how closely
tech companies are cooperating with the government on
"These special data deals were allowing the police to sneak
in through a side door and use these powerful platforms to track
protesters," said Nicole Ozer, the ACLU's technology and civil
liberties policy director.
The ACLU report found that as recently as July, Geofeedia
touted its social media monitoring product as a tool to monitor
protests. Geofeedia is a software platform that enables clients
to monitor posts tied to a specific location.
The company said it aims to provide real-time, publicly
available information to clients including corporations, media
groups, cities and sports teams. Geofeedia is committed to the
principles of personal privacy, transparency and individual
rights and has clear policies to prevent the inappropriate use
of its software, Chief Executive Officer Phil Harris said.
"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," Harris said in an
Geofeedia works with over 500 law enforcement agencies and
public safety agencies across the country, according to an email
the ACLU obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In a 2016 case study obtained by the ACLU, Geofeedia quoted
Baltimore police Detective Sergeant Andrew Vaccaro who said the
force intercepted kids with backpacks full of rocks after the
Geofeedia team alerted them to chatter from a local high school.
Baltimore was swept by rioting in April 2015 following the
funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from a
spinal injury after being arrested by police.
In an October 2015 email message, a Geofeedia employee
touted its "great success" covering racially charged protests in
the aftermath of the August 2014 shooting of black teenager
Michael Brown by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb
Facebook and Instagram terminated Geofeedia's access on
Sept. 19, according to the ACLU.
"This developer only had access to data that people chose to
make public," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Its
access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy,
which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data
using the Facebook Platform."
Facebook's platform policy says developers may not "sell,
license, or purchase any data obtained from us or our services."
In a tweet, Twitter said that it was "immediately suspending
Geofeedia's commercial access to Twitter data," following the
(Reporting By Kristina Cooke; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)