Twitter, Facebook and Instagram cut off police tool used to spy on you

Twitter has revoked Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data following reports that the information was being used for police surveillance purposes.

Last month, the Daily Dot reported that the US Denver Police Department paid at least $30,000 to the startup in exchange for software which intercepts, aggregates and stores online posts across social networks including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

With Geofeedia‘s location-based search capabilities, law enforcement can conduct what is called “geo-fencing” — capturing media posted by anyone in a specific area including social media posts, commentary, videos, and images.

The social media giant’s decision was revealed in a tweet sent on Tuesday:

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According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Geofeedia had access to at least the Instagram API, which is a stream of public posts, Facebook’s Topic Feed API — a tool intended for media and marketing — and Twitter’s database of public tweets through a subsidiary agreement.

However, as these tools — perhaps among others — were used as Geofeedia acting as a developer, scraping user data for sale elsewhere is not permitted by terms of service agreements.

While social media companies are able to monetize their platforms by offering marketers and analysis firms access to data and details about uploaded content such as the location, age and sex of users alongside trends, popular themes and phrases, in Twitter’s case, third-parties are not permitted to use this information to create tools for spying purposes.

Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have now revoked such access and abuse of public data, which could be used to compile a digital portrait of individuals for surveillance purposes.

While social media hosts whatever we are happy to say in public, the idea of potentially having a police officer watching and analyzing all the content you dare to post online is not a happy one — and tools which aggregate this data for law enforcement may lead us down a slippery slope when it comes to future privacy, public rights and surveillance.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at ACLU told the Daily Dot:

“Even though you obviously don’t need a warrant to read stuff that’s been published for the world to see, that doesn’t mean — as a policy matter — it’s a good idea for us to give our police license to engage in mass social media monitoring. [..]

In the US we’ve never had a secret police that circulates around civil society just looking for anybody saying anything suspicious. We shouldn’t have an online equivalent either.”

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris insisted that the startup is “committed to the principals of personal privacy” and does “everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms.”

Geofeedia may insist such, but after ACLU discovered the company was marketing itself as a way for law enforcement to monitor large events including protests, you have to wonder just how much of a priority the protection of personal freedom is — especially when a profit can be made.

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