Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram supplied police in Ferguson and Baltimore with data that was used to track minorities, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. But such snooping is increasingly inevitable, unless our use of social media changes.
The investigation reveals that the companies packaged up and provided data from public posts to a company called Geofeedia. Instagram provided access to an API that allowed Geofeedia to see all public posts, including location data; Facebook provided access to its so-called Topic Feed API, which provides ranked streams of public posts that mention specific topics; and Twitter provided access to its searchable database of public tweets.
Geofeedia has made a name for itself by analyzing this kind of digital content to provide surveillance information to law enforcement agencies, and claims to have at least 500 clients. Along the way, it seems to have targeted activists of color. In one e-mail chain with a potential police client, a Geofeedia representative boasted that the company had “covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success.”
Speaking to the Washington Post, the ACLU’s Nicole Ozer explained that the Union considers this to be unacceptable:
“These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police. The ACLU shouldn’t have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing. The companies need to enact strong public policies and robust auditing procedures to ensure their platforms aren’t being used for discriminatory surveillance.”
For their part, the companies have all cut off, or at least modified, their supply of data to Geofeedia since the investigation was carried out.
But what’s particularly troubling about the report is that much of this data is already public and, theoretically at least, still accessible by Geofeedia—just with rather more effort and, admittedly, a violation of the terms of service of the social networks if it is “scraped.” If someone needs that data, though, it is certainly accessible, and some may even be willing to flout such restrictions.
The news, then, is a reminder of how we all enable a surveillance society by simply choosing to use social networks. Of course, digital snooping has been an issue for as long as we’ve been digitizing our lives. But as more people share their lives online, it becomes easier to keep a watchful eye on what the world is doing.
There are solutions to the problem. One is to keep social network accounts locked so that the data isn’t open for others to read, then ensure that social networks don’t share it. But while that may work on, say, Facebook, where individuals are often unwilling for just anyone to happen upon their drunken party snaps, it’s less likely to work on Twitter, where part of the charm is the open nature of communication.
Perhaps better may be to wean ourselves off of social media. If we could do that, even just a little, its power for spying could perhaps be diminished. That’s something that Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler, wants to do, though not because of privacy concerns: he’s interested in feeling less beholden to the smartphone generally, as the Atlantic reports. But his radical idea to stop software from being so addictive—by introducing new criteria, standards, and even a Hippocratic oath for software designers—could go some way to making us less reliant on social media.
Looks like we might need it—and rather that than going cold Twitter bird.