Outrage Over Police Social Media Surveillance Falls on the Wrong Parties

Hold law enforcement responsible for snooping, not the tech platforms.


John Orvis / Splash News/Newscom

By now everybody must be hip to the fact that social media companies make a good chunk of their money not off us users tweeting about the latest outrage, Instagramming our lunches, or Facebooking political memes with completely inaccurate or made up information. It makes money by taking what we voluntarily reveal about ourselves, packaging it up (or allowing software developers to package it up), and selling it to customers.

It has also become increasingly obvious that governments—local, national, and international—understand social media as an organizational and tracking tool and have adjusted their information-gathering techniques accordingly. This is not inherently a negative—it helps police and emergency responders map out how to react to a crisis, for example.

But that's also the problem. Governments have a noted trend toward seeing anything from its own citizenry that disrupts its own precious order as a "crisis," including groups of people gathering in public to loudly express opinions that their government sucks.

We already know full well that local police and the FBI have been using surveillance tools to snoop on its own citizens, particularly during protests. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has discovered as a result of records requests that American law enforcement agencies are social media datamining tools to keep tabs on protesters and activists.

Specifically, law enforcement agencies have been using tools by a company called Geofeedia to keep track of location-based social media trends in real time. It was doing so via its access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram user data, and according to the ACLU, it was marketing itself to law enforcement specifically for easier surveillance purposes.

Based on what the ACLU was able to gather, it doesn't appear Geofeedia had access to private information. Rather it had access to database info of what people publicly choose to share on social media and was able to use the same tools marketers use to try to promote products to you based on what you talk about on social media.

The ACLU here is taking an approach that I personally find a little unusual and a bit concerning. They are pressuring the social media outlets to be accountable to how developers and customers use the data. They're putting out a list of recommendations for tech companies:

Beyond the agreements with Geofeedia, we are concerned about a lack of robust or properly enforced anti-surveillance policies. Neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes. Twitter does have a "longstanding rule" prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance as well as a Developer Policy that bans the use of Twitter data "to investigate, track or surveil Twitter users." Publicly available policies like these need to exist and be robustly enforced. Here is what we're asking of the social networks:

No Data Access for Developers of Surveillance Tools:Social media companies should not provide data access to developers who have law enforcement clients and allow their product to be used for surveillance, including the monitoring of information about the political, religious, social views, racial background, locations, associations or activities of any individual or group of individuals.

Clear, Public & Transparent Policies:Social media companies should adopt clear, public, and transparent policies to prohibit developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes. The companies should publicly explain these policies, how they will be enforced, and the consequences of such violations. These policies should also appear prominently in specific materials and agreements with developers.

Oversight of Developers:Social media companies should institute both human and technical auditing mechanisms designed to effectively identify potential violations of this policy, both by the developers and end users, and take swift action for violations.

The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes. We are confident the companies agree. Facebook and Instagram have already cut off access to Geofeedia and Twitter should do the same. It's also time for all three of the companies to live up to their words by taking the additional concrete steps outlined in our letters.

Why does this bother me? It feels as though the ACLU wants to make private companies responsible for overseeing how governments interact with information rather than holding police and officials themselves responsible.

I realize that's not an entirely fair evaluation. The ACLU certainly does not shy away from holding authorities responsible for inappropriate government surveillance and is not afraid to fight in the courts to restrain this behavior.

Nevertheless there's something about this pressure on social media companies to take responsibility for keeping data out of the hands of law enforcement that feels like a surrender. It feels like an acknowledgment that we cannot expect our police to respect our privacy and we can't expect that they will be held accountable for violations. Instead the ACLU is demanding that these companies employ more resources, both human and technological, to keep authorities at bay. This is not a task without costs for Twitter or Facebook or other companies.

There is the larger picture that these tech companies also have to worry about what happens to data in autocratic countries where governments more harshly crack down on citizens who defy authority. Certainly the increased push for data encryption is in part an effort to help prevent not just criminal hackers and identity thieves, but it's also an understanding that governments are trying to secretly access our personal, private data.

Perhaps I'm overreacting. But my larger fear is that somehow these suggestions will eventually lead to attempts to legally obligate social media companies to be responsible for government behavior, with possible large civil fines as penalties for failures. The idea may sound absurd, but keep in mind the "ban the box" movement to discourage companies from immediately discounting potential employees on the basis of criminal records is moving from a voluntary shift to a government order in some cities. That means that companies could be penalized by the government for declining to hire people who had a criminal background caused by government enforcement of the law itself. Instead of changing the enforcement of drug and vice laws, government is simply telling employers when they're allowed to care about these laws.

Read more about the ACLU's complaint to social media companies here.

NEXT: Sierra College Feminists Will Hand Out Harassment Citations to Students Who Whistle, Honk, Shout, Whisper, Say Things

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. But tech companies make profits.
    They have to be the devil.

    Bigger government exists to destroy profit margins so they must be benevolent.

    1. My co-worker’s step-sister makes $97 hourly on the laptop . She has been out of work for six months but last month her paycheck was $14100 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go this website and click to tech tab to start your work…

  2. Isn’t that why everyone wants Snowden locked up for life? It’s okay for gov’t to spy on you, but not those evil corporations. Gotta stop them ads. [even Stossel fell for that one]

  3. Why does this bother me?

    Because something always has to with you people.

    1. It doesn’t bother me. Fuck the NSA, CIA, FBI, DEA, ATF, EPA, SEC, etc… They can all rim my asshole. I pay (paid) their wages. I don’t need to pay some agencies to monitor me and try to control my life, because they’ll do it for free. I would happily pay more taxes if they would stop doing their “jobs”.

      1. Pay them their pensions and tell them to go home and watch the Superbowl.

        1. Federal officials can’t watch the superbowl; it has evil nasty NFL teams that do not respect our flag.

  4. So the SPD was using GeoFeedia to observe social network, and being Seattle, the big concern was that the SPD was targeting, and I quote, “activist groups of color”.

    Anyhoo, SPD claims they don’t use Geofeedia any more, but now use another technology (that I guess does the same thing so it’s all good).

    During the press conference with the chief and some spokesdude, there was some allusion to a Homeland Security grant, then they gave examples of the search terms they would flag as suspicious. Spokesdude starts blurting them out… get a load:

    Bleed out

    O’Toole: “So what this does is it will scan open source public media to see if those terms are being used in a particular area.”

    This was supposed to reassure me.

  5. The strategy may well be to ask companies to use their legal resources on behalf of the people being spied upon. The companies are under no obligation to do so, of course, but it would be a step in the right direction.

    Consider the patchwork of jurisdictions across the country where, taken as a whole, leaves the country vaguely pro-police. There are pocket counties where the citizenry takes more extreme views toward the police (for or against), but those tend to be the exception. Given all that, are the police even listening to the citizenry anymore? It sure seems like they’re not, and why should they? They’ve essentially been given free license to act as they do, and even after riots they don’t budge on policy, they don’t fire terrible cops, and don’t prosecute malicious cops who commit crimes against the citizenry. Why would they suddenly start listening to us about illegally spying on the citizenry?

    If a citizen resists, he or she may not be able to fight the inevitable police backlash. A company can afford the lawyers who may actually get precedents set through the judicial system that put a hamper on domestic spying activities.

    All in all, it’s a call for top-down resistance since bottom-up clearly yields no fruit.

  6. Has anyone ever heard a policeman or police chief say that they need to respect privacy MORE? I think we have given up on trying to reign in police power.

  7. Bryce . even though Samuel `s story is unbelievable… on tuesday I bought a great Peugeot 205 GTi after making $4790 this – four weeks past an would you believe $10k last month . it’s definitly the most-comfortable work Ive ever done . I actually started 4 months ago and right away startad earning more than $85 p/h . find more info


  8. Hold law enforcement responsible for snooping, not the tech platforms.

    Nope. “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”
    Law enforcement doesn’t set law enforcement policies. Lecturing LEOs on what they should be doing while their bosses set different priorities is less than useless.
    If law enforcement is too snoopy about people, hold the city hall, county government, state legislature, or Congress responsible.

    Regardless, if you use social media you don’t have to pay for, expect the corporations providing the “free service” to make money off of you somehow. That’s as libertarian as it gets.

  9. my gf’s sister just got an almost new gold Fiat Hatchback just by parttime work from a home pc
    see more at———–>>>

  10. Exactly what, from the technology perspective, is the difference between what the marketing companies do, and what the law enforcement does? To suspend access to some, but not all developers, based solely on who SOME of their clients are, is the definition of illegal discrimination. If citizens give up the data voluntarily, they should not be surprised how it is sold and used. Two of the three “suggestions” are actually violations of the EULA.

  11. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


  12. Peyton . even though Billy `s report is cool… on monday I got a gorgeous Maserati after I been earnin $8985 thiss month and even more than ten k lass month . it’s certainly the easiest work Ive ever had . I started this 9-months ago and practically straight away started bringin home at least $78 per-hr . look at this now


  13. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


  14. While coming to education, the technology has brought many advantages to students and as well as teachers. showbox For example, students can do their homework or assignment with ease and can complete it faster by using the Internet.

  15. What the heck is with all the graphics-intense crap loading on these pages when you try to scroll down?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.