Sunday Facepalm: Geofeedia.


There is no denying how amazing internet access and social media has been for so many people who are marginalized and oppressed. Sites such as FB and Twitter have been empowering, and allowed for people to be able to stand together for social change. There’s also no denying the problems with social media, either. Both Facebook and Twitter are home to festering sewers of hate and abuse, and both have been reluctant, to say the least, to do anything about it. There’s plenty of talk from FB, all the time, but in reality, it seems the only thing FB is really serious about is not having any photo of a nipple anywhere, if that nipple is attached to a female body. The fairly new rollout of live streaming has already headed into problems, when a young man live streamed his suicide, and even though notified, FB took days before they finally managed to remove the video. That lack of action, and seeming lack of care earned a number of WTF, facebook! from users. Facebook is currently losing people to Snapchat, and even that hasn’t seemed to stir them to make seriously needed changes.

Now, social media is facing the problem of applications like Geofeedia, programs written for, and used by cops and homeland security. The Verge has a good story on this problem.

Yesterday, social media surveillance became a very real problem for Facebook and Twitter. An ACLU report revealed a CIA-funded tool called Geofeedia was being used by police to track data from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to aid in investigations. Documents show Baltimore police used the tool, called Geofeedia, during protests after the death of Freddie Gray, even feeding Instagram posts through a facial recognition system to find protestors with outstanding warrants.

Facebook and Twitter were quick to revoke Geofeedia’s access to social feeds — effectively shutting down the current version of the tool — but its broader implications are harder to dismiss. Facebook and Twitter can control direct access to their data, but they have much less control where the information goes. Now that police departments are looking to tweets and Instagrams for clues, stopping them may be harder than shutting down a single app.

The center of the issue is how Geofeedia was getting the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts it supplied to police. In each case, the company was drawing information directly from feeds supplied by the platforms: Facebook’s Topic Feed API, Instagram’s full API, and a feed supplied through Twitter’s social-data subsidiary GNIP. The feeds are meant to give developers direct, machine-friendly access to posts, making it easier to build software on top of the social networks. Typically, networks want developers building that software — it’s the same system that allows for third-party add-ons like VSCOCam and Tweetbot — but they control access with a Terms of Service and an API key that’s required to access the feeds.

After the ACLU report, Facebook and Twitter revoked those keys — but it’s worth considering how much that will set back similar tools in the future. Facebook and Twitter have complete control over their API keys, but both platforms have made it fairly easy to get one. Developers need to give a general description of the software they’re building and promise to abide by the Terms of Service, but there’s little enforcement and low-level terms of service violations are commonplace. Typically, that’s a good thing. The web was built on permissionless innovation, and heavy-handed enforcement efforts are often seen as bullying or arbitrary. But it also makes it hard for companies to ensure their data isn’t being used for anything controversial.


Geofeedia’s infractions are more subtle. Nominally, the company was violating Facebook’s provisions against reselling data and Twitter’s provisions against investigating and surveilling users. But the rise of big data has created countlessstartupsdevoted to mining insights from social media streams. People use that data for all sorts of things — trading stocks, spotting trends, or identifying influencers. When people start to get arrested because of that data, there’s an obvious chilling effect, but the distinction between selling data to police rather than a hedge fund is hard to pin down. The problem is with the clients rather than the behavior itself — and clients are easy to keep secret.

That ambiguity is a big part of why Geofeedia was able to stay on the platforms for so long. The company serves a wide range of clients — including “educational companies, cities, schools, sports teams, and the aviation sector,” in the CEO’s words. Absent a public shaming, there was no reason to think law enforcement clients would be any different. A similar case played out on Twitter earlier this year, when a company called Dataminr got in trouble for a contract selling Twitter analytics to the Department of Homeland Security. The company ultimately had to cancel the contract, faced with the prospect of losing access to Twitter’s data stream.

The full story is at The Verge.


  1. intransitive says

    More often than not, claims of “monitoring terrorists and criminals” is a pretext for monitoring people who disagree with the government. It’s not about stopping crime, it’s about intimidating people and silencing free speech. Mano Singham recently wrote about facial recognition software, a related issue.

    It’s loosely related to H.R. 237, the “FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) Passport Revocation Act of 2015,” which passed in 15 minutes without debate or any corporate media reporting. Back in the 1980s when there were anti-nuclear protests outside of bases in the UK, the CIA took pictures of protesters. Allegedly, passports were revoked from people seen protesting. Combined with facial recognition and cameras everywhere, it really speeds up the process of becoming a police state.

    Be sure to wear your Guy Fawkes or other shaped mask the next time you take part in a protest.

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