(TNS) — SAN JOSE, Calif. — After civil liberties groups raised concerns that police in Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and other cities were using social media to monitor protesters, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cut off user data access for the company that created the tracking tool.
Poring over emails obtained through a public records request of dozens of law enforcement agencies, the American Civil Liberties Union of California discovered that all three Bay Area social media companies provided data to Geofeedia. The Chicago startup works with more than 500 public safety agencies.
“In the digital age, social media has become a powerful platform to expose human rights abuses and connect across issue and geography,” the ACLU of California, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change wrote in a letter to Facebook and Instagram. “However, these data deals enable dangerous police surveillance that weakens this platform’s power, chills free speech and threatens democratic rights.”
The groups also noted that these social media tools impact communities of color and low-income areas where protests have erupted over fatal police shootings.
In a statement, Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said the company works with a variety of groups outside law enforcement, and that it provides a tool that aims to ensure public safety while protecting civil liberties.
“Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software,” Harris said. “These include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors.”
“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.”
As more law enforcement agencies use social media data to thwart crime or track down suspects, questions are surfacing about exactly how police are using these tools. At the same time, consumers are increasingly worried about what information tech firms are handing over to government agencies for surveillance or intelligence gathering.
“There’s this entire strata of private companies that are selling to law enforcement, and that entire strata of companies is a shadowy industry,” said Eric Goldman, a law professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. “We don’t really understand who’s in that industry. We don’t know what they’re saying to law enforcement or to what extent they’re keeping the promises they made.
“To me, this particular situation is a microcosm of that much bigger problem.”
Through the public records request to 63 police departments, sheriffs and district attorneys, the ACLU of California found that about 20 law enforcement agencies in the state acquired social media surveillance software.
An Oakland police spokeswoman, Officer Johnna Watson, said in an email that the department is no longer using Geofeedia. “In 2014-2015 we had a one-year subscription to Geofeedia. Since the end of the subscription in 2015, we chose to no longer subscribe to the service,” she said.
The San Jose Police Department did not immediately reply to calls or emails Tuesday.
With taxpayer dollars funding these agencies, the public deserves more answers about how these tools are being used, Goldman said.
“If there’s trouble brewing in a city, I want law enforcement to be there and make sure there’s crowd control and they prevent any violence that could have been avoided,” he said. “But if they’re doing it because they’re treating protesters as inherently suspect behavior, then I think it’s misguided.”
A spokesman from Facebook, which owns Instagram, said Tuesday that Geofeedia only had access to data that people chose to make public. Nonetheless, the social media giant terminated access because Geofeedia was using the data in “ways that exceeded the purposes for which they were provided.”
Facebook data about specific topics, for example, are only supposed to be used for media and brand purposes.
Twitter bars the sale of user data for surveillance and prohibits developers from using its data “to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.” On Tuesday, the company tweeted that it was immediately suspending Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.
Social media companies market themselves as champions of free speech, and Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey notably marched alongside protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
But civil liberty groups also are calling on social media companies to keep a better eye on developers and do more to make sure user data isn’t being used by law enforcement for surveillance.
“While we’re glad both companies have cut off Geofeedia’s access to user data, both of these companies only did so after these secret deals were made public,” Brandi Collins, campaign director of Color Of Change, said in a statement.
“Both companies need to immediately develop publicly accessible policies that prevent these types of harmful deals from happening again in the future.”
©2016 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.