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Social media sites block startup Geofeedia over its ties to police tracking


Protesters take note: Police can easily monitor social media activity around large gatherings based on hashtags and geographic location.

It’s a practice privacy advocates are warning against, saying it could scare people away from exercising their right to protest.

“[Police are] not allowed to go to a protest and start randomly asking people for their IDs unless there is a very clear security risk. So you shouldn’t be able necessarily to replicate that just because they’re tweeting at this event,” said privacy lawyer Tamir Israel, with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

The American Civil Liberties Association recently released a report detailing how Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allowed a company called Geofeedia access to its data through something called an API (Application Programming Interface). The company, which has offices in Chicago, Indianapolis, Ind., and Naples, Fla., specializes in pinpointing social media data based on geographic locations.

All three companies have since blocked Geofeedia from using their data.

While the information was publicly available, privacy experts say it’s not reasonable for police to have such easy, searchable access to such data.

Marketed as tool for protest-monitoring

Geofeedia was gathering publicly available data from these social media sites, as well as a handful of others, and selling it to police agencies, marketing itself as a tool to monitor events, like protests, in real-time.

The ACLU says this type of monitoring violates privacy. And the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says it could give pause to would-be protesters.

“Even just the suspicion that law enforcement is monitoring peaceful protests and keeping an eye on people could have a chilling effect on people participating in that peaceful protest,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

McPhail said it’s likely that Canadian police forces use this kind of technology, as well.

As CBC has reported in the past, police agencies use technology in their investigations, but it’s difficult to get information about what exact technology is being used.

Geofeedia did not immediately respond to CBC’s requests for comment, and neither did the RCMP.

But the RCMP has said in the past that if it reveals what technology it uses, it could impede investigations.

Public data

Geofeedia says all of the data it used was publicly available. And anyone with even rudimentary programming skills can use the API to run a program to scan tweets, for example.

With Facebook and Instagram, a company has to get approval before using their APIs. If the company is found to violate their terms of use, like Geofeedia did, Facebook revokes access. 

Twitter has several APIs. Any individual or company can use two of them freely, as long as they also comply with Twitter’s terms of use. But it’s not clear how Twitter blocks access to its public APIs if a company or individual violates those terms. Twitter did not reply to requests for clarification.

Twitter’s other API, known as the firehose, is more powerful. Firehose is not free, but it gives companies access to a lot more data. And those companies are not subject the same restrictions as those who use the public APIs.

According to the ACLU, Geofeedia had access to Twitter’s firehose via a subsidiary of Twitter called GNIP.

This gave Geofeedia something the average Twitter user — and even average programmer — would not be able to get: easily searchable access to all of Twitter’s public tweets. 

“Yes the data is publicly available, but it would take a police officer probably their entire lives to go through the data that was available [via GNIP and Geofeedia] to police at the click of a button,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of California.

TWITTER-M&A/

Even a beginner programmer can make a program to search Twitter for specific hashtags, for example. But the ACLU said Geofeedia’s technology gave police exponentially better search tools than what the average person has access to. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Specific groups targeted

Ozer said it’s particularly concerning that the data was used to target specific groups, such as Black Lives Matter protesters.

In their research, which included documents granted to them through the American access-to-information process, the ACLU said it found a pattern of how Geofeedia’s services were being marketed to law enforcement.

Ozer said the company made statements about monitoring protests and provided case studies of Geofeedia’s use during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015.

“The examples were primarily activists of colour, and situations like Ferguson and the Freddie Gray protests,” she said.

Individual responsibility

Gathering public information like this is a grey zone — it’s legal, but some say there should be clear limits on how police can use it.

“It’s a new area where it’s tough to say where the line is or where even it should be,” said Israel. “There definitely should be lines, though.”

Most of us wouldn’t expect police to form a profile based on our tweets at a protest, said Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a three-term Ontario privacy commissioner who is now the executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University.

“While people should take greater responsibility of the kind of information they put out there, the reality is, generally speaking, [that] no one considers all the possible consequences of the information,” she said.

She said public distrust of police is at “an all-time high” due to events like Edward Snowden’s NSA document leaks that showed the extent of government spying.

If police want information from social media, Cavoukian said they should have to sift through it like the rest of us — or get a warrant.

“It shouldn’t be delivered to them on a silver platter.”

CBC | Technology News

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