Officers were able to single out and arrest protesters with outstanding warrants during the Freddie Gray riots with help from a social media monitoring tool, the ACLU has found.
The group’s Northern California branch said in an investigative report published yesterday that the company Geofeedia helped police tap into protesters’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts last April. A Geofeedia case study shared by ACLU attorneys shows the firm has marketed its relationship with the Baltimore County Police Department, which renewed its contact with the company a week before the unrest began in April 2015.
As masses took to the streets, a Geofeedia employee began feeding back data to a Baltimore County police detective, who passed on real-time data to police in the city so they could stay “one step ahead.”
“In some cases, police were even able to run social media photos through facial recognition technology to discover rioters with outstanding warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd,” the case study says.
Authorities used similar tactics during unrest in Oakland and Ferguson, Mo., the ACLU said in its report.
Geofeedia was able to gain access to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter because it was listed as a developer. The first two of those companies cut Geofeedia off in September after the ACLU contacted them. Twitter blocked Geofeedia from accessing user data yesterday after the report’s publication.
Geofeedia’s use of their data to help police surveil users seemed to be a violation of all three companies’ developer policies, The Verge’s Russell Brandom reports. However, he notes that Geofeedia was accessing all three social networks’ data for five years before the ACLU spoke up. For that reason, it remains unclear how closely the companies were enforcing their developer policies for Geofeedia.
Baltimore police have faced public scrutiny recently for other surveillance practices, including their use of an aerial surveillance plane that is currently flying over Baltimore to boost security during Fleet Week.
There seems to be an increasingly fine line for what’s legally acceptable when it comes to surveillance by law enforcement. The ACLU concludes, “the government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes.”
We have reached out to Geofeedia for a comment from their CEO. This company has posted this statement on its website saying it is committed to protecting free speech and civil liberties.
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