Social Media Monitoring Service Sold Data to Cops

John Lister's picture

A company accused of selling social media data to the police has been blocked from accessing some or all content from three major sites. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter made the move after complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.)

According to the ACLU, Geofeedia markets its social media monitoring product to police forces as a way to monitor people who may be involved in protests. In one marketing message, a company representative specifically cited the use of the service during the high-profile unrest that followed the shooting of a man by police officers in Ferguson, Mississippi. The company reports having 500 clients involved in law enforcement and related fields.

Access Made Monitoring Easier

This isn't a case of Geofeedia accessing or passing on confidential data or posts that users had set to be restricted or private. Instead, it was able to get access that allowed it to automate the collection and assessment of user posts and content in a way that would be impossible to do manually given the sheer volume of data that users produce. In most cases, using ordinary web searches or the public search facility on the sites would not give such comprehensive but targeted results.

The ACLU says each of the websites offered slightly different access. Facebook allowed it to access a feature called Topic Feed API (application program interface) that's designed and marketed as making it easier to find posts which mention a particular company or brand.

Instagram gave access to the complete, constantly updated stream of user posts, including the ability to find people posting from specific locations. Meanwhile, Twitter gave access to its complete database of public tweets, though this did not include tweets users had set to be read by approved followers only.

No Laws Being Broken

Since being contacted by the ACLU, all three sites have cut off Geofeed's commercial access to their data. (Source:

There's no suggestion that any of the organizations involved have acted illegally in providing, passing on or using the data. However, the ACLU wants the social media sites to voluntarily sign up to a promise not to grant automated access to companies which pass on or use data for law enforcement surveillance, arguing that "The government should not have preferred access to social media speech for surveillance purposes." (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Do you support the ACLU's stance on the issue? Is there a moral or legal argument against social media companies making it easier for law enforcement to search and monitor posts? Or should there be no restrictions on accessing content that users have chosen to make publicly available?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I see two issues here, aside from what the ACLU has pointed out.

One is that most people aren't aware of what information is accessible to "the public". For instance, on Facebook there is a setting to only show posts to your "friends on Facebook", or to show it to the entire world. That in itself may warrant what people post online, though most of the time people don't know the difference - plus we really shouldn't have to worry that someone (or a service) may be spying on our posts.

The second issue may not be an issue at all, but it's worth mentioning: if you don't want your posts or information being shared to "the public," then it would make sense to not post that information in the first place. Some people will disagree with that citing 'freedom of speech' - however, in this day and age of social media, I believe the issue is relevant.

f58tammy's picture

What I think is missed here is that a organization can interfere with the legal operation of a business, without having a court deciding if this business and the company's listed was in violation of any laws. No company should voluntarily sign any document that restricts how and to whom they can do business with.

Also if someone is really upset by this practice they should first read the "end user agreement" that they agree to when they register with the said company's website or app (probably why the ACLU knew the did not have a legal leg to stand on.) and if they don't agree to it should delete there account.

As far as the "Freedom of Speech" issue, you still don't have the right to shout fire in a public place. The government should not be able to stop you from speaking, but it should be able to hear what you are saying. If we had the technology of today back in 2001, would anyone argue that the government had no right to know that 9/11 was coming. One last thought the terrorist won on 9/11 the country I grew up in is forever lost. In Arizona we will need a state issued Identity card to enter Arizona from another country. Dose anyone still remember the phrase "Papers Please".

Commenter's picture


ANYone can (legally) interfere with the legal operation of a business. You can sue. You can start a letter-writing campaign. You can walk up and down the sidewalk in front carrying signs. For heaven's sake, you can simply post a disparaging post online and ruin a business. Legally.

Second, many companies sign agreements as to who they can and can't do business with. Just try to sell certain products internationally and you will get a whole book chock full of what you can and can't do, what you can sell, where you can sell it, etc., etc., etc. Plus public opinion carries weight, and if your business doesn't want to be the subject of a letter-writing campaign, protests, and blogs and tweets, you have to pay attention to what your customers care about.

Third, much as I hate to say it, it really isn't practical to read the entire "end user agreement" when you sign up with many services. I know because twice I have started to sign up with Facebook, and after four hours of reading, I wasn't anywhere near finishing. And I'm a very fast reader and I understand "legalese" terms pretty well. Personally, I threw up my hands in disgust and just didn't bother to join FB because I'm probably the only person you know who actually reads the entire agreement in everything I sign before I sign it. But most people will recognize the futility of going through the entire agreement and just sign it without reading it. Did you read it? Did you read the agreement to join this site and post? Your rental/lease/mortgage agreement? Your car loan/lease agreement? Your employment agreement? All of these have surprises, many of them nasty surprises that were disclosed in such a manner as to make them, practically speaking, not disclosed at all.

As far as your comment on 9/11 that implies that this level of information gathering would have stopped it, the government DID have the information that it was coming, but the various intelligence agencies were too busy protecting their knowledge and sources to share with each other, and thus our early warning was squandered. But that's another post entirely.

Although many people can't pinpoint exactly why this kind of data gathering bothers them, they know inherently that it's a problem. True, all this information is public. So is the time you turn on your bedroom light and it shines out the window, the time you leave your home in the morning, the route you take to work each day, the place where you work, who you talk with at work, anything you say that can be overheard, where you eat lunch, what time you take a break and go to the bathroom, when you leave work, what store you stop at on the way home, where you park your car, what food you buy, what car you drive, what clothes you wear, and on and on and on. Is this public? Yes. You did it or said it or wore it or drove it in public. Anyone can see. The problem starts when one person or entity starts watching ALL of this and putting it together. If it's a person, I'll bet you're going to call the police and report them for stalking you. Because that's what it is when one person or one entity watches and compiles data on you. Just because that person or entity is stalking many many many people at the same time doesn't make it any less stalking.

Can you call the police and report that a person is watching you day and night and compiling a database of everything you do and say? You betcha. Can you call the police and report that an ENTITY is watching you day and night and compiling a database of everything you do and say? Not so much. They'll present you with a tinfoil hat and make a little note in the database about paranoia.

So what's to be done? If not the ACLU, then who? If you have a better idea, or really even ANY idea, I'm sure a whole bunch of us are open to hearing it.

buzzallnight's picture

Geofeedia markets its social media monitoring product to police forces as a way to monitor people who may be involved in protests.

Good work!!!!!!!!!

Locate, Identify and arrest the protestors!!!!!!!

and get them off of the damb freeways pronto!!!!!!

If you are so stupid
you don't know your cell phone is transmitting
you deserve what you get.

Here is a bonus question for you.

When the USA sends a cruise missile to kill terrorists
what does the cruise missile lock in on to kill the target????

matt_2058's picture

Mr Faas has the best advice:if you don't want your post shared with the public, then don't post it.

I think the whole thing is funny for all the points mentioned, starting with the headline:

'Social media monitoring service sold data to cops': Yep. Somebody thought they'd do the leg work for law enforcement and make a few bucks. Really not much different from MANY apps out there that collect info. Do you really think the goal of highly popular timewaster-games is to entertain you? If it was, they wouldn't collect YOUR data.

Regarding Geofeedia,
Did they steal the info? NO. They bought it from the INITIAL info gatherers...FB, Twitter, etc.

Did FB, Twitter, etc steal it? NO. YOU gave it to them.

ACLU...geez. In reality, could Geofeedia have a good lawsuit for unfair business practices? ACLU interfered with a legal business by using threats. Sounds mob-like.

Why is the local police getting the info any worse than the USGov getting it? It's not. In fact, the USGov is doing the legwork themselves...and misusing the courts to get it from YOUR providers. I'd bet Google, Apple, FB, etc would change their tune about the USGov wanting customers' info if the USGov were paying for it.

And last but not least...the police depts need to do their own job, not pay others to do it for them. I'd like to see the data from using a service like that. The costs, perps caught, impact of the info. etc.

The most serious point is what "Commenter" mentioned about putting all the info together. This is where the misuse by every entity that has access comes into play. People can't help themselves and use their position of trust for personal matters....neighbors, ex-spouses, girl/boyfriends, colleagues, celebs, just being plain nosy, etc.

That's the kicker and why I can never support data gathering that identifies or can identify a specific person or entity.