An article this week in The New York Times Police Use Surveillance Tool to Scan Social Media about Chicago company Geofeedia’s use of text, photos and videos from social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to aid in law enforcement sparks controversy about law enforcement vs. civil liberties.
The use of location technology to solve crimes is nothing new. The use of social media content in a specific location is relatively new, and a potent resource for law enforcement.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or is it, like all new technologies, fraught with the potential for misuse as well as for the common good? It is sort of like the case of the hammer: you can use it to build a house, or to hit someone over the head with it.
We have covered Geofeedia quite extensively in GISCafe news, for use in retail, public safety, disaster response and law enforcement etc. Additional uses for Geofeedia services remain to be seen, but it may be extremely helpful for averting violence at certain events.
It is really a case of, we have the technology, so how do we use it to its best advantage without damaging civil liberties of the individual?
Geofeedia’s tool allows users to search for social media content in a specific location, as opposed to searching by words or hashtags that would be less likely to identify an exact location.
Over 500 law enforcement agencies have signed up for Geofeedia’s solutions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The company shows how Baltimore officials were able to track and respond to violent protests that broke out after Freddie Gray died in police custody in April 2015, using their tool.
The ACLU reports says that Geofeedia has used programs freely offered by social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter that allow app developers or advertising companies to create third-party tools. In response to criticism from ACLU saying that social media companies have been “lax” in monitoring their data, social media companies say they’ve stopped Geofeedia’s access to their information.
According to The New York Times article: “These platforms should be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color,” Matt Cagle, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. in Northern California, said in an interview. “When they open their feeds to companies that market surveillance products, they risk putting their users in harm’s way.”
In response to this news, Team Geofeedia issued a blog entitled A Commitment to Freedom of Speech and Civil Liberties, in which it defined Geofeedia’s role as a “software platform that aims to provide important, real-time, publicly available information to a broad range of private and public sector clients, including corporations, media and journalism groups, marketing and advertising firms, educational companies, cities, schools, sports teams, and the aviation sector.”
Phil Harris, chief executive of Geofeedia, said in a statement that his company “provides some clients, including law enforcement officials across the country, with a critical tool in helping to ensure public safety while protecting civil rights and liberties.” He said the firm has policies to prevent “inappropriate use of our software.”
Mr. Harris added that the company understands that given how quickly digital technology changes, Geofeedia “must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights.”
The blog states: “In each of these areas, Geofeedia is committed to the principles of personal privacy, transparency, and both the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to individual rights. Our platform provides some clients, including law enforcement officials across the country, with a critical tool in helping to ensure public safety while protecting civil rights and liberties.
Notably, our software has also been used in response and recovery efforts – from the Boston Marathon to the effects of Hurricane Matthew that we saw this past weekend – to assist millions of people affected by both manmade and natural events.
Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software; these include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors. That said, we understand, given the ever-changing nature of digital technology, that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights.
Geofeedia will continue to engage with key civil liberty stakeholders, including the ACLU, and the law enforcement community to make sure that we do everything in our power to support the security of the American people and the protection of personal freedoms.”
The ACLU got wind of the use of Geofeedia when 60+ law enforcement agency records revealed a significant expansion of social media surveillance.
“Posts on social media platforms can reveal information about our location, our religion, the people we associate with,” Cagle said. “Users of social media websites do not expect or want the government to be monitoring this information. And users should not be at risk of being branded a risk to public safety simply for speaking their mind on social media.”
The New York Times has used Geofeedia technology in the past, but stated that it has not used it since 2015.
Regardless of the threat to civil liberties, it does appear that such location-based information gleaned from social media is here to stay, for reasons of national security, community security, disaster response and recovery, etc. Thus it would seem policies to protect civil rights of individuals need to be quickly put in place. Geofeedia is not the only company providing this sort of surveillance. See our story in GISCafe Voice Vencore Aggregates Data from many Open Sources and Social Media