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Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter Provided Data Access for a Surveillance Startup Marketed to Target Activists

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, VK, Google's Picasa and Youtube were handing over user data access to a Chicago-based Startup — the developer of a social media monitoring tool — which then sold this data to law enforcement agencies for surveillance purposes, the ACLU disclosed Tuesday.

Government records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that the big technology corporations gave "special access" to Geofeedia.

Geofeedia is a controversial social media monitoring tool that pulls social media feeds via APIs and other means of access and then makes it searchable and accessible to its clients, who can search by location or keyword to quickly find recently posted and publicly available contents.

The company has marketed its services to 500 law enforcement and public safety agencies as a tool to track racial protests in Ferguson, Missouri, involving the 2014 police shooting death of Mike Brown.

With the help of a public records request, the civil rights group found that Geofeedia had entered into agreements with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for their users' data, gaining a developer-level access to all three social networks that allowed them to review streams of user content in ways that regular users of the public cannot.

The Denver Police Department recently signed a $30,000 annual deal with Geofeedia.
Here's what the major tech giants offered Geofeedia:

  • Facebook allowed the company to use its "Topic Feed API" that let Geofeedia obtain a "ranked feed of public posts" centered around specific hashtags, places or events.
  • Instagram provided Geofeedia access to its API (Application Programming Interface) that is a feed of data from users' public Instagram posts, including their location.
  • Twitter provided Geofeedia with "searchable access" to its database of public tweets. However, Twitter added additional contract terms in February to try to safeguard further against surveillance, and when found Geofeedia still touting its product as a tool to monitor protests, Twitter sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all moved to restrict access to Geofeedia after learning about the tool's activities when presented with the study's findings.


Above all, the companies articulate their role as a home for free speech about important social or political issues.

Yet there is a severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided.

Beyond the agreements with Geofeedia, we are concerned about a lack of robust or properly enforced anti-surveillance policies. Neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes. Twitter does have a “longstanding rule” prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance as well as a Developer Policy that bans the use of Twitter data “to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.” Publicly available policies like these need to exist and be robustly enforced. Here is what we’re asking of the social networks:

  • No Data Access for Developers of Surveillance Tools: Social media companies should not provide data access to developers who have law enforcement clients and allow their product to be used for surveillance, including the monitoring of information about the political, religious, social views, racial background, locations, associations or activities of any individual or group of individuals.
  • Clear, Public & Transparent Policies: Social media companies should adopt clear, public, and transparent policies to prohibit developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes. The companies should publicly explain these policies, how they will be enforced, and the consequences of such violations. These policies should also appear prominently in specific materials and agreements with developers.
  • Oversight of Developers: Social media companies should institute both human and technical auditing mechanisms designed to effectively identify potential violations of this policy, both by the developers and end users, and take swift action for violations.

The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes. We are confident the companies agree. Facebook and Instagram have already cut off access to Geofeedia and Twitter should do the same. It’s also time for all three of the companies to live up to their words by taking the additional concrete steps.






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