Social Networks Clamp Down on Geofeedia

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I have written about and used Geofeedia a few times over the past years and from the point of view of an emergency manager, I’m a huge fan. However, the service has also always made me – and everyone whom I’ve shown it to – very uncomfortable because of the surveillance implications. Now it looks like these concerns might shut the service down.

Geofeedia - map view

Geofeedia shows all social media updates in a defined area. This screenshot shows updates after an earthquake in Northern Italy on 20 May 2012.

Uses in emergencies

Geofeedia extracts geographic information from social media posts on social media, and puts them on a map. Users can browse through these updates without needing to do a keyword search. This makes it much easier to find posts in other languages, as well as photos and videos that have been posted without captions. You could, for example, draw a circle around the epicentre of an earthquake and see all posts from within that area, based on GPS meta data or IP addresses.

This information can help inform rapid damage assessments because you can instantly see what survivors are sharing online. (Read my review from 2012 here.)

Surveillance

However, the same technology can also be used to monitor dissidents in repressive regimes. It is the same conundrum that many technologies face: You can use cameras to monitor your citizens, or you can attach them to the uniforms of policemen to hold them accountable. We see similar discussion when it comes to the use of drones: Is it ok when a real estate agent or a videographer uses a videodrone, but not ok if the police does it during a protest march? These are not easy questions.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Geofeedia enabled police departments in the US to monitor activists and protesters. The ACLU speaks of “a fast expansion of social media surveillance with little-to-no debate or oversight.”

One example: according to one of the documents obtained by the ACLU, Geofeedia alerted [a police department] to “increased chatter from a local high school about kids who planned to walk out of class and use mass transit to head to the Mondawmin Mall protest.” The police then “intercepted the kids — some of whom had already hijacked a metro bus — and found their backpacks full of rocks, bottles, and fence posts.” (Source: Baltimore Sun)

In response to the ACLU’s report, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have cut Geofeedia’s data pipes or reduced the company’s access to that of a normal user.

Photo: Jonathan McIntosh on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Modern surveillance takes on many forms. Photo: Jonathan McIntosh on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The case against Geofeedia

What I find interesting is that – from what we know – Geofeedia has not violated anyone’s privacy settings (though there are indications that they at least intended to do so).

Geofeedia just collected public social media updates, extracted the location information and made those posts more easily accessible. This is not very different from what you can do with Hootsuite’s geosearch. The difference is that Geofeedia combined data from multiple social networks and made it more easily accessible at a price that was affordable to police departments. As the DailyDot points out, Geofeedia has multiple competitors who are offering similar services but for a much higher price. Besides, I think it would be absurd to assume that intelligence agencies don’t have similar systems in-house. After all, Geofeedia’s implementation was not rocket science – it was just smartly done.

For me, the real issue is not the tool that was used, but the lack of collective thinking that we have done regarding privacy implications of social media. Or as the ACLU puts it:

“[W]e 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.” (Source: ACLU)

Being shocked about the capabilities of one specific service will do nothing to resolve the conflict between privacy and surveillance that has accelerated with the digitisation of our lives. What we need instead is a discussion about who owns the data that is generated by individuals and in how far businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google are allowed to store and resell that data. As long as we are not having that conversation, we will regularly come across examples that make us uncomfortable – until is has become so normal that we no longer care.

Here are some links related to digital privacy in general and Geofeedia in particular:

What do you think? Please leave you comments below!