Law enforcement agencies have a long history of surveilling political dissent. While the practice is at least as old as the Haymarket Massacre, new technology has increasing given law enforcement new ways to conduct surveillance. This problem is confounded by the fact that many of us use social media to share not only our personal thoughts and feelings, but to express our political views or organize rallies and protests. Law enforcement is aware of this trend and have begun surveilling social media.
Geofeedia, a private company, is also aware of this trend. So much so that they have developed software that allows users to more easily monitor social media user data, by allowing individuals to search for key phrases based on geographic location or use facial recognition to identify individuals. They not only have marketed it to law enforcement, but done so while explicitly touting the surveillance software’s success in monitoring Black Lives Matter protests.
Geofeedia’s commodification of political surveillance was discovered by the of American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU) as the result of public records request filed with 63 California law enforcement departments. Based on the documents, Geofeedia advertised to law enforcement that it had an agreement with 12 different social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to access user data. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have all since cut of relations with Geofeedia, arguing that Geofeedia use of user data violates their terms of service.
The released documents also contain a number of chilling facts. In Baltimore, Geofeedia not only allowed police to monitor protests over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, but by using facial recognition technology police were able to identify protesters with outstanding warrants and arrest them.
Geofeedia purports to have contracts with over 500 police departments. In a response to a press inquiry, the Denver Police Department revealed that their contract with Geofeedia cost taxpayers $30,000 a year.Yet, up until several days ago most people were not even aware their police departments had acquired such technology. The over 500 police departments that contracted with Geofeedia did so without informing the public or asking for their input.
The public should never be in the dark about the ways those that are tasked with “serving” and “protecting” them are spying on them. Yet, this is only the latest example of police departments not informing the public or even elected officials, about what surveillance equipment they have purchased. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the ACLU and a dozen other organizations to promote local ordinances to require transparency and an opportunity for public input and protest before any new surveillance tools are acquired by police. Find out more here.
That Geofeedia advertised its ability to surveil the Black Lives Movement is chilling, yet political surveillance is not unique. People are rightfully disturbed by Geofeedia and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were right to break ties with them, but Geofeedia is part of a much larger problem.