According to a bombshell report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) this week, police used special feeds of user data provided by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to track protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore. Of course, many of the individuals participating in these racially charged protests were minorities, adding another degree of controversy to Facebook and the other tech companies’ actions.
The companies reportedly provided this user data to Geofeedia, a company that analyzes social media posts to deliver surveillance information to law enforcement agencies. For its part, Facebook said that Geofeedia only had access to data that users made public, and that its access was “subject to the limitations” in Facebook’s Platform Policy.
“These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California, told The Washington Post. “The ACLU shouldn’t have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing.”
Facebook and Twitter both cut off Geofeedia’s access to user information after the ACLU pointed out how the company was using the data, but many advocates were critical of the social media giants for only changing things after being publicly called out.
“While we’re glad both companies have cut off Geofeedia’s access to user data, both of these companies only did so after these secret deals were made public,” said Brandi Collins of the racial justice group Color of Change. “Both companies need to immediately develop publicly accessible policies that prevent these types of harmful deals from happening again in the future.”
It’s a good thing that Facebook ended this controversial arrangement, but it’s troublesome that it needed to be publicly shamed to do so.