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Police Used Instagram, Facebook, Twitter to Monitor Black Lives Matter Protests

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter Cut Geofeedia
Photo by M.Stan Reaves/REX/Shutterstock (5908941i)

Police departments around the country have used special software to monitor Black Lives Matter protests on social media, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). One of the most popular tools for this purpose, dubbed Geofeedia, had special data sharing agreements with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — but the companies are now curtailing access to make sure that their platforms aren’t used for profiling.

The ACLU has been investigating the use of social media by police agencies for months, requesting records from 63 California police departments this summer. Scouring the thousands of pages of paper the organization received as a response, it realized that at least a third were using social media monitoring tools.

The documents also showed that these tools were often used to broadly cast peaceful protesters and people of color as security risks. Geofeedia for example labeled union activists taking part in these protests as “overt threats,” and a potential sign for anticipated riots and looting.

Documents also showed that Geofeedia was telling law enforcement officials that it had special access to data from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  Like other companies building social media marketing tools, Geofeedia was making use of data supplied by these platforms.

However, both Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been vocal supporters of Black Lives Matter protests. The use of their companies data to track these very protesters, and label them as potential threats, couldn’t go over well with the companies — and they both responded Tuesday by curtailing Geofeedia’s access.

“Based on information in the ACLU’s report, we are immediately suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data,” tweeted Twitter public policy team Tuesday.

And Facebook terminated the company’s access to Instagram data, stating that it will “take swift action” whenever someone uses Facebook or Instagram data in an unauthorized matter.

Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said in a statement that his company’s services are used in a wide range of fields, including media, sports and public safety. “Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software,” he said. ” That said, 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. Geofeedia will continue to engage with key civil liberty stakeholders, including the ACLU, and the law enforcement community to make sure that we do everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms.”

The ACLU now wants the two companies to go one step further and permanently ban any company that has law enforcement ties from accessing their data. “Law enforcement should not be using tools that treat protesters like enemies,” wrote ACLU Technology and Civil Liberties Project Director Nicole Ozer in a blog post.

Update: 10/12: This post was updated with a statement from Geofeedia.