Social media in general has always had the stigma hanging over it of users letting others know more than they need to, but the American Civil Liberties Union recently found out that this stereotype, in at least three cases, proved quite true, and may have even been linked to some of the chaos surrounding the recent protests in Baltimore, Maryland. At the center of it all is a company called Geofeedia, who provides geographic and social media data to government and law enforcement agencies to aid in user surveillance. The ACLU of California recently executed public records requests to 63 different law enforcement agencies throughout the state of California, and through the contents of the replies, found out that these agencies are using Geofeedia to monitor users.
Upon seeing this, the ACLU investigated further and on a wider scale. Their search eventually turned up a testimony from the Baltimore Police Department that stated that Geofeedia was directly responsible for the identification of protesters in the wake of the Freddie Gray verdict, some of whom ended up arrested. Other bits and pieces turned up in the investigation revealed that Geofeedia also played a role in police response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Geofeedia had previously had developer access to both Facebook and Instagram, letting them mine user information with impunity, but this was revoked once the investigation went public, and Geofeedia has been blocked from gather info as much as possible. Twitter came around a bit later, but has made similar moves.
In the wake of everything that they discovered, the ACLU is calling on social networks to better protect user privacy in the future. Specifically, the ACLU is asking social media sites to cut off access to developers of surveillance tools, monitor developers using their APIs much more closely in the future to identify such behavior, and publish transparent user data security and privacy policies to ensure that if something like this could possibly happen again, users will be expecting it. The nationwide debate over things like digital surveillance and encryption still rages on, but the moves made by Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook in the wake of this investigation seem to be a step toward a bigger focus on user privacy.