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Facebook Twitter & Instagram Ban Data Monitoring App Geofeedia

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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New privacy row as social networking sites halt access by data gathering app used by law enforcement

A civil rights group has claimed a privacy victory after its efforts resulted in major social networking sites halting access to its data by a social media monitoring firm.

The development comes after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had all provided user data access to Chicago-based Geofeedia.

Social Monitoring

gchqThe ACLU blogged that Geofeedia markets its tool to 500 plus law enforcement agencies in the US as way for them to monitor activists and protesters. But it now seems that social media companies are now preventing Geofeedia from access user data.

“We are pleased that after we reported our findings to the companies, Instagram cut off Geofeedia’s access to public user posts, and Facebook has cut its access to a topic-based feed of public user posts,” said the ACLU. “Twitter has also taken some recent steps to rein in Geofeedia though it has not ended the data relationship.”

Twitter later said that it was “immediately suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.”

The ACLU became involved after it noticed Geofeedia’s actions from public records requests to 63 California law enforcement agencies.

“These records revealed the fast expansion of social media surveillance with little-to-no debate or oversight,” it stated. “But as we continued to comb through thousands of pages of documents, we saw emails from Geofeedia representatives telling law enforcement about its special access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram user data.”

Julien Tromeur - Twitter SorryIndeed, one message revealed that a Geofeedia staffer telling police that it had arrangements with Twitter and Instagram for user data.

“Because Geofeedia obtained this access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a developer, it could access a flow of data that would otherwise require an individual to ‘scrape’ user data off of the services in an automated fashion that is prohibited by the terms of service,” said the ACLU. “With this special access, Geofeedia could quickly access public user content and make it available to the 500 law enforcement and public safety clients claimed by the company.”

“Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of colour,” the civil rights group stated. “Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle could easily target neighbourhoods where people of colour live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as ‘overt threats.’ We know for a fact that in in Oakland and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests.”

Privacy Commitment

The ACLU sent letters to the social networking companies, asking them to commit to three principles to ensure user privacy. Firstly, prevent data access for developers of surveillance tools. Secondly to publish clear, public and transparent policies, and thirdly to conduct oversight of developers.

“The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes,” said the ACLU. “It is also time for all three of the companies to live up to their words by taking the additional concrete steps outlined in our letters.”

Geofeedia meanwhile was quoted by Reuters as saying it was committed to the principles of personal privacy, transparency and individual rights and had clear policies to prevent the inappropriate use of its software.

“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 CEO Phil Harris told Reuters.

The issue of privacy remains a very touchy subject for social networking firms, with data protection watchdogs around the world closely monitoring the actions of the social websites.

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