Facebook and Twitter Ban Police Surveillance Software

By George Khoury, Esq. on October 12, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Erring on the side of protecting their customers' civil rights, social media giants Facebook and Twitter have recently banned Geofeedia from using their users' data. Geofeedia is a third party surveillance software that sells high-priced services to law enforcement and marketers that tracks social media trends. Until recently, Geofeedia primarily relied on data gathered from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to geo-locate when, where, and who police needed to monitor for whatever reasons requested.

However, it is not just used for limited surveillance of crowds. Law enforcement agencies across the country use Geofeedia to track protesters and social justice activists when no crowds are present. The software works by reviewing public information on social media and analyzing that information to determine who is a threat to public safety and where the threat is located.

Why Is This Important?

Despite the fact that Geofeedia is only using public information, the ACLU has championed the cause to stop Geofeedia because the software has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and those exercising their free speech rights. Social media surveillance software makes it possible for law enforcement to monitor individual activists and groups, and know the location where posts were made, even if there is no history to warrant monitoring, nor probable cause to conduct a search.

Although a person may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in what is publicly posted on the internet, law enforcement is walking a fine line by spending time and tax payer money on gathering intelligence on presumably peaceful social activists and groups.

As this is a new use of technology, courts have ruled that technology that enhances law enforcement's ability to surveil what may be technically public may still actually trigger Fourth Amendment protections. The bigger problem is that monitoring of protesters and activists would have a chilling effect on the public discourse at a time when social media is considered a primary medium for social activism.

Social Media Shutting Down Police Surveillance

While Facebook took action prior to the ACLU's public statement, Twitter followed suit immediately after its release. Both social media giants have cut-off Geofeedia from the developer resources that allowed the surveillance software to gather intelligence at much faster speeds than would be available to regular users. Prior to September of this year, Geofeedia was able to access developer APIs that basically gave them direct access to the databases that stored public user data, allowing them to manipulate, aggregate and analyze the data much faster and easier than an ordinary user.

Twitter and Facebook have closed the backdoor. They have also clarified their policies prohibiting third party companies from surveilling users and using their users information for commercial gain. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that software companies that track social media trends for law enforcement will just change the way they gather their data. In the game of cat and mouse, though, it is rare to see law enforcement in the mouse's shoes.

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