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A report by the ACLU reveals that major social media platforms provided data access to a third-party called Geofeedia, which then made that data available to law enforcement. The ACLU is particularly critical of this arrangement because Geofeedia marketed itself to police as a tool to monitor protesters and activists. The ACLU first became aware of the dealings between Geofeedia and police after receiving responses to records requests from several California police departments.

After searching through the records, the ACLU determined that Facebook, as well as its subsidiary Instagram, were providing data access to Geofeedia. Twitter was also providing access to Geofeedia. There may be other social media platforms providing data to Geofeedia as well. One email explaining the benefits of Geofeedia states that it has “8 total social media sources.” However, only the three platforms already mentioned in this article have been identified by name in the documents made available to the ACLU. Some of the other features mentioned in the email include:

  • Our data is richer and more complete since we pay for our data from different platforms, opposed to just tapping into the open access API. This allows us to be faster overall
  • We pay for Twitters Firehose, which allows us to gather more complete data and quicker
  • Gather 10x more Instagram Data due to our partnership with Instagram. We are the only social media monitoring tool to have a partnership with Instagram
  • Geofeed Streamer is unique to Geofeedia and has numerous uses (ie: Live Events, Protests – which we covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success, Disaster Relief, Etc)

Another email specifically discusses Facebook. It states, “Not sure when we last discussed Facebook but we recently entered a confidential legally binding agreement with Facebook. Over time, Facebook will be reactivating more and more data to Geofeedia throughout our partnership. Unfortunately, we do not have timeframes to share with customers. We do know, however, that this data is far more data than any other competing data mining software has to offer when it comes to Facebook.”

After reading through all the available records, the ACLU summarized the data sharing relationships between the social media platforms and Geofeedia in the following points:

  • Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to the Instagram API, a stream of public Instagram user posts. This data feed included any location data associated with the posts by users. Instagram terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
  • Facebook had provided Geofeedia with access to a data feed called the Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be a tool for media companies and brand purposes, and which allowed Geofeedia to obtain a ranked feed of public posts from Facebook that mention a specific topic, including hashtags, events, or specific places. Facebook terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
  • Twitter did not provide access to its “Firehose,” but has an agreement, via a subsidiary, to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets. In February, Twitter added additional contract terms to try to further safeguard against surveillance. But our records show that as recently as July 11th, Geofeedia was still touting its product as a tool to monitor protests. After learning of this, Twitter sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter.

By the time that the ACLU had published this article yesterday, Facebook and Instgram had already cut off Geofeedia’s data access. Twitter had made some attempt to limit Geofeedia’s access but had not cut it off entirely at that time. After the report was published, Twitter released the following statement, “Based on the information in the ACLU’s report, we are immediately suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.”

The ACLU is critical of Facebook and Instagram for not having a publicly stated policy that prohibits developers from using social media data for surveillance purposes. Although Twitter does have rules against using the platform’s data for surveillance, the ACLU also criticizes them for failing to promptly enforce it in the case of Geofeedia. The ACLU calls upon all social media platforms to institute clear public policies that developers can’t use their sites for surveillance purposes and to take swift action against violators of the policy.

Should people be concerned about social media data mining being used as a tool of police surveillance, or is it a reasonable crime fighting tool? Leave your comments below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.