Harvard University

A “Powerful Surveillance Program” Exposed

From Bernard Harcourt’s Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age:

ExposedIn the wake of the two grand jury decisions to refuse to indict police officers in the homicides of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, a protest was organized for Saturday, December 13, 2014, in New York City. The organizers of the Millions March set up a Facebook page, where, by the night before, more than 45,000 people had RSVPed. It was posted as a public event on Facebook, so everyone and anyone could see who had signed up to attend—providing everyone and anyone, including the social media unit of the New York City Police Department, a costless, pristine list of all the individuals who feel so strongly about the problem of police accountability that they are willing to identify themselves publicly.

It takes little imagination to think of the ways that such a list could be exploited: As a background check during a police-civilian encounter or stop-and-frisk. As a red flag for a customs search at the airport, or a secondary search at a random checkpoint. As part of a larger profile for constructing a no-fly list, or for attributing a lower priority to a 911 emergency call. For more aggressive misdemeanor arrests in neighborhoods that have higher concentrations of protesters. As part of a strategy to dampen voter turnout in certain precincts. For a cavity search in case of arrest. There are myriad creative ways to misuse the data; our imagination is the only limit. And with a single click, a prying eye can learn everything about each of the digital selves that signed up for the protest on Facebook; using a simple selector, an intelligence analyst could collect all of the digital information about any one of those signatories, read all their emails, attachments, wall posts, and comments, decipher their political opinions and engagements, scan their photos and texts, target their videochats, track them by cell phone location—in sum, follow their every movement and digital action throughout every moment of their day. Once we are identified, we can be relentlessly monitored across practically every dimension of our daily routine—by means of the GPS on our phones, our IP addresses and web surfing, our Gmail contacts, MetroCards, employee IDs, and social media posts.

From the Washington Post:

A powerful surveillance program that police used for tracking racially charged protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., relied on special feeds of user data provided by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, according to an ACLU report Tuesday.

From the ACLU:

The ACLU of California has obtained records showing that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provided user data access to Geofeedia, a developer of a social media monitoring product that we have seen marketed to law enforcement as a tool to monitor activists and protesters.

  • Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to the Instagram API, a stream of public Instagram user posts. This data feed included any location data associated with the posts by users. Instagram terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
  • Facebook had provided Geofeedia with access to a data feed called the Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be a tool for media companies and brand purposes, and which allowed Geofeedia to obtain a ranked feed of public posts from Facebook that mention a specific topic, including hashtags, events, or specific places. Facebook terminated this access on September 19, 2016.
  • Twitter did not provide access to its “Firehose,” but has an agreement, via a subsidiary, to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to its database of public tweets. In February, Twitter added additional contract terms to try to further safeguard against surveillance. But our records show that as recently as July 11th, Geofeedia was still touting its product as a tool to monitor protests. After learning of this, Twitter sent Geofeedia a cease and desist letter.

Because Geofeedia obtained this access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a developer, it could access a flow of data that would otherwise require an individual to “scrape” user data off of the services in an automated fashion that is prohibited by the terms of service (here and here). With this special access, Geofeedia could quickly access public user content and make it available to the 500 law enforcement and public safety clients claimed by the company.

Social media monitoring is spreading fast and is a powerful example of surveillance technology that can disproportionately impact communities of color. Using Geofeedia’s analytics and search capabilities and following the recommendations in their marketing materials, law enforcement in places like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle could easily target neighborhoods where people of color live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as “overt threats.” We know for a fact that in Oakland and Baltimore, law enforcement has used Geofeedia to monitor protests.

Social media companies and their executives have expressed support for activists, movements, and free speech. Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Black Lives Matter and expressed sympathy after Philando Castile’s killing, which was broadcast on Facebook Live. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey went to Ferguson. Above all, the companies articulate their role as a home for free speech about important social or political issues.

Yet there is a severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided.

From Exposed:

We face today, in advanced capitalist liberal democracies, a radically new form of power in a completely altered landscape of political and social possibilities.

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