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  October 12, 2016

ACLU Nabs Firm Using Facebook, Twitter to Help Police Investigate Protesters

Promotional materials obtained by civil rights organization show Geofeedia tapped social media feeds to track activists on behalf of police in Baltimore and Ferguson
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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

We’re standing outside the Maryland headquarters of the ACLU where we’ve just learned about yet another privacy intrusion of law enforcement. This time using social media. Stephen can you summarize the conversation we had with David Rocah?

STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Yea we talked to David Rocah of the ACLU. Apparently the ACLU in Northern California caught a company called Geofeedia using social media to monitor protestors, activists, specifically in Baltimore and in Ferguson. They were using social media not just as a way to monitor what’s going on but also they said as a means to prosecute and arrest. So we discussed this with David Rocah, the legal director the ACLU of Maryland and what he had to say about his concerns, his organization’s concerns and what this could do to the freedom to protest and associate and politically active in the United States of America.

DAVID ROCAH: This was the ACLU of Northern California that did a series of public record request to law enforcement agencies out there, seeking information about law enforcement agencies use of this social media monitoring tool and what it uncovered is that Geofeedia was abusing the special developer access that it had to different social media platforms feeds underlying information to create a law enforcement surveillance tool which was seemingly prohibited by the terms of service of those companies. So it raises significant questions about whether those companies were saying one thing to their customers and then doing something else in secret behind their back. And it raises really troubling concerns about law enforcement monitoring of political protests groups and creates the real potential of chilling political activists use of these tools and destroying one of the most powerful tools for political engagement and activism and communication that has ever existed in this country or anywhere in the world.

I mean on the one hand, these social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and others have created this newly democratized means of communication so that political activists here and around the world can communicate and organize and coalesce around shared political ideas in ways that were never before available because the information had to be shared through tradition media gatekeepers. So what is new about these social media platforms is the way in which it has broadened who is a publisher, who is a speaker and who has access to a global audience and it’s precisely because of that, that these social media companies have touted that very ability because of that, these platforms have been instrumental in political protest movements, significant political protest movements here in Baltimore, in the United States and all over the world and we’ve seen things because of that democratized publishing platform that we would never have otherwise seen. Which is also why those social media platforms have seemingly promised to their users that their data is not going to be turned into a tool for state and police surveillance.

There’s a sort of basic trust between the social media companies and their user that has to exist in order for people to use those platforms and in order for those platforms to be the tools for democracy that they’re creators say they want them to be and that their users want them to be. And when the companies turn the user data over to law enforcement and turn them into a tool of political surveillance, that trust is not just eroded but sort of broke at a basic level in ways that have the potential to really not just destroy the social media company’s use as a tool but undermine people’s willingness to use those platforms at all. I think that’s why once this information was made public, you saw both Facebook and Twitter immediately say that they were revoking the special access that Geofeedia had as a software developer which was allowing them to then turn the social media streams, the data in the social media platforms into tools of law enforcement surveillance.

What it also means is that when a hashtag like black lives matter or police brutality or pro life or any other political hashtag can become a search term for law enforcement monitoring. That has an obvious and troubling chilling effect on people’s willingness to use these social media platforms as tools for political organizing. I think it is important to question and push back against government doing that and from these marketing materials it seems pretty clear that that’s exactly what they were offering government the ability to do. What they were offering law enforcement agencies the ability to do.

JANIS: So they were tallying the servers and they were basically essentially selling this to police, this was like a business where they’re saying we can monitor these things real time and give you information you can use to--.

ROCAH: Right, Geofeedia was using its access to the aggregate feeds that it had as a software developer which in the case of Facebook was supposed to be available only to media companies and advertisers. They were using that access and then marketing that to law enforcement agencies and saying you can do hashtag searches, keyword searches, geographically based searches, and specifically touting their monitoring of political protests. So it raises very troubling questions. So then the marketing materials related to Baltimore are just downright bizarre.

It purports to recount incidents that have never been reported as happening and it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine those things having happened and not being reported. So the marketing materials quotes claims by a Baltimore county police officer that by using this social media monitoring, they were able to intercept kids who had hijacked a metro bus and were armed with backpacks full of rocks. That incident has never been reported and it seems simply inconceivable to me that it could have happened and there would never have been a public report of that.

JANIS: There’s one thing that’s so interesting. They say we plan to use our archives from Geofeedia to prosecute as many lawbreakers and rioters as we can. What are the dangers of turning Facebook, Twitter, even news media into collaborators with government or police for criminal type of investigations?

ROCAH: Any time the government is archiving information about peoples’ political activities, then that is a huge reason for concern. News media is not simply a tool of law enforcement because we recognize that if you want to have a free press and you want to have reporters able to serve the important role that they play in our society, there has to be some separation and that same principle is true with respect to these social media platforms. If they are going to serve the role of being the democratic means of people connecting and communicating over political ideas and themes from whatever perspective, then people have to be able to do that without the fear that doing so is putting their name and politics into a government database.

The other really shocking claim that is in these marketing materials is that the police were pulling pictures off of social media and then using facial recognition software to identify people with open warrants and then arresting them at protests. If that’s true, that would be another really troubling development.

JANIS: We just heard about Yahoo turning over all our emails to NSA. We just had the Baltimore Police Department doing secret surveillance. Now we have this Gofeedia. Are we losing the power here for people’s freedom of expression and ability to use these social media tools without fear of being under constant surveillance?

ROCAH: I think what all of those examples show is that there is a battle to fight but people are organizing around this issue all over the country, including here in Baltimore. I think what it shows is that the historical way of doing business where the deployment of surveillance technology by law enforcement was a decision that was made behind closed doors without public knowledge or input or accountability is profoundly dangerous given the incredibly invasive and sophisticated technologies that are now being made available to law enforcement, both because of the growth of huge databases in private hands about us that can become tools for law enforcement and that law enforcement then seeks access to. And because of the growth of new technologies of surveillance itself like this persistence wide area aerial surveillance that allow for monitoring and privacy invasions on a scale never before known to human kind and I think what that shows is that we can’t just passively sit back and let these decisions happen to us and about us and for us by law enforcement.

But we have to demand because after all we are the people being surveilled and we are the people supposedly to whom law enforcement is accountable and for whom they work. I think it means that we have to force conversations and democratic accountability over the acquisition of these technologies before it happens so that a discussion can happen about what is the technology, how does it work? What are its privacy implications? What are its racially disparate impacts? And what is the cost benefit analysis and is this something that we should do?

GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.


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