Twitter has stopped developer tool Geofeedia from accessing its data after a report from the ACLU confirmed that the developer tool was used to track protesters during the 2014 Ferguson unrest and the Baltimore riots from earlier this year.
The report confirmed that Twitter, along with Facebook and Instagram, granted access to the powerful surveillance program, which allows users to pinpoint the geographic origins of social media posts. The tool has been used by more than 500 law enforcement organizations to keep track of protesters in real time.
“These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California, the affiliate which discovered Geofeedia’s relationship with the social media giants through public records requests to 63 California law enforcement agencies. “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.”
Twitter responded to the ACLU’s clarion call for greater cyber security via a tweet:
— Policy (@policy) October 11, 2016
According to the released public records, Geofeedia was granted access to the Instagram API that includes all location information; access to Facebook’s Topic Feed API, allowing Geofeedia to monitor public posts “including hashtags, events, or special places;” and access to a public database of public tweets.
Facebook and Instagram cut off access to both the topic feed and the Instagram API. The Washington Post reported further that Twitter ordered Geofeedia to stop accessing its public database, going as far as authoring a cease and desist letter.
The obtained records also include a quote from a Geofeedia official, who bragged to a law enforcement official that their program “covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success“.
The ACLU report adds to already prevalent concerns as to the encroachment by law enforcement agencies upon First Amendment rights, a conversation that started with Wikileaks and has continued through discussions as to the proper corporeal comportment an American citizen should take during a rendition of the national anthem.