Company passed Facebook and Twitter user data to US cops

12 Oct 2016

Marchers rally against racism after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Image: Rena Schild/Shutterstock

Civil rights protesters in the US might want to stop using social media, as new documents have revealed that data from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is being sold to law enforcement by a third party.

The way social media sites like Twitter and Facebook use data to build a profile on an individual is well known at this stage, with these companies aiming to target you with relevant ads.

However, this data is sometimes passed on to other groups and recent developments have shown that one such group is US law enforcement.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), emails sent between a company called Geofeedia and police showed that the company was advertising the ability to use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram data to monitor activity and individuals at popular protests.

The email even specifies particular successes in the past, including the famous protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

The details of Geofeedia’s involvement with police forces in the US came following a freedom of information request from the California government, which revealed that the practice of social media surveillance was widespread.

One of the known agreements with these social media companies was Facebook giving Geofeedia access to the now ended Topic Feed API, originally designed for media and advertising companies.

Social media bosses react

In a similar agreement with Instagram, Geofeedia had access to an API that allowed the company to track location data of users based on their posts, but this too has been shut down as of 19 September.

Finally, Twitter’s Firehose API allowed for the searching of public tweets for specific phrases or terms, but the social media company tried to reign in on Geofeedia – and any other company – using it for surveillance purposes.

Twitter eventually took action against the company following its banning of Firehose for this use in February 2016, eventually sending a cease and desist letter after it became apparent that Geofeedia was still using it after this date.

Since the publishing of these findings, both Instagram and Facebook have blocked Geofeedia from gaining access to its APIs, with Twitter following suit shortly after.

The ACLU has now called on a number of changes to be made at the highest level of these companies, particularly when it comes to having greater oversight of who gets access to potentially harmful data.

“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 organisation said.

Geofeedia has since issued a response to these findings saying it has always followed the law in these situations.

“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,” it said.

Marchers rally against racism after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Image: Rena Schild/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic