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In one email to a police department, a Geofeedia representative promotes a particular feature that they say "covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success." (Photo: Justin Norman/flickr/cc)

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter Helped Police Track Activists of Color: ACLU

In marketing materials, surveillance developer Geofeedia called unions and activist groups "overt threats"

Nadia Prupis

Three major social media networks helped police target activists throughout the country during tense protests against police brutality and racism, according to a new post by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published Tuesday.

The ACLU of California obtained records showing that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provided special user information, like location data, to the developer of a "social media monitoring product" often used by police to spy on protesters. The group found that police used the product to track high-profile protests in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as cities throughout California, from Oakland to Riverside.

In its marketing materials, the developer, known as Geofeedia, referred to unions and activist groups as "overt threats" and explicitly referred to the ways police could use its tools to monitor anti-brutality protests.

Although all three companies took steps to restrict the company's access to their data after the ACLU reported its findings to them, "further steps are required" if the companies want to fulfill their promises to users of protecting free speech, the organization said, noting that by targeting activists or groups seeking to protest racial injustice, law enforcement—and the private companies that help them—are potentially violating constitutional rights.

In one email to a police department, a Geofeedia representative promotes a particular feature that they say "covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success."

The revelations also provide further evidence that social media monitoring is spreading quickly and could disproportionately impact communities of color, ACLU added. The organization's post comes on the heels of an exposé by Bloomberg that a private company had helped Baltimore police secretly spy on residents from the air, using small planes equipped with military-grade cameras.

"These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police," Nicole Ozer, ACLU-CA's technology and civil liberties policy director, told the Washington Post. "The ACLU shouldn't have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing. The companies need to enact strong public policies and robust auditing procedures to ensure their platforms aren't being used for discriminatory surveillance."

To that end, the ACLU, the Center for Media Justice, and Color of Change sent letters (pdf) to the companies urging them to "commit to concrete changes" to protect users, including cutting off access of data to developers of monitoring tools, adopting transparent policies, and implementing stronger oversight of developers.

"In the digital age, social media has become a powerful platform to expose human rights abuses and connect across issue and geography. However, these data deals enable dangerous police surveillance that weakens this platform's power, chills free speech, and threatens democratic rights," the letters read.


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