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Facebook, Twitter accused of providing user data for police surveillance

Data provided through a third-party social-media monitoring program allowed authorities to track civil unrest, says the ACLU.

Social-media data provided to a monitoring program was used for tracking protests like this one in Baltimore last year.

Social-media data provided to a monitoring program was used for tracking protests like this one in Baltimore last year.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provided feeds of user data to a social-media monitoring program used by police to track racially charged protests in Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore, according to an ACLU report released Tuesday.

The monitoring program, created by Chicago-based Geofeedia, often included users' locations and other personal information that was passed on to 500 law enforcement and safety agencies, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights group said Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram, moved to restrict Geofeedia's access to the data streams after being presented with the study's findings.

The report underscores the growing use of social media as a surveillance tool to track civil unrest and crime. The ACLU noted that such data is often used to monitor protests in minority neighborhoods, contrary to the companies' expressed support for activists, movements and free speech.

"There is a severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided," Matt Cagle, ACLU policy attorney for technology and civil liberties, said in a statement.

Cagle also said the organization was distressed by a lack of enforced anti-surveillance policies among social-media companies.

"Neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes," Cagle said. "Publicly available policies like these need to exist and be robustly enforced."

Those sentiments were echoed by Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization founded in 2005.

"CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have openly courted activists and organizations in the Movement for Black Lives to engage with their platforms," said Brandi Collins, campaign director for Color of Change. "This makes each of their involvement with social-media surveillance tools used against black activists all the more disturbing."

The group also challenged the companies to make changes that ensure this type of situation doesn't happen again.

"Both companies need to immediately develop publicly accessible policies that prevent these types of harmful deals from happening again in the future," Collins said.

Twitter said it moved to sever Geofeedia's access to its data after reviewing the ACLU's report.

"Based on information in the @ACLU's report, we are immediately suspending @Geofeedia's commercial access to Twitter data," Twitter said in a tweeted statement Tuesday.

Facebook said Geofeedia's data feed was limited to publicly available user information.

"This developer only had access to data that people chose to make public. Its access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy, which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data using the Facebook Platform," Facebook said in a statement. "If a developer uses our APIs in a way that has not been authorized, we will take swift action to stop them and we will end our relationship altogether if necessary."

Geofeedia didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.