Social media giants gave data belonging to the accounts of African-American activists to a firm hired by police to track their whereabouts and planned events.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been providing users’ data to a controversial social media monitoring company working on behalf of police surveillance programs. The information was revealed this past Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who obtained government records documenting the collusion. The social media monitoring company, Geofeedia, was targeting activists of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, gathering information on their social media posts as well as their physical location.
However, BLM protestors and activists were not the only one’s targeted by police using Geofeedia’s services. The ACLU had previously uncovered that police departments in California were using Geofeedia software to monitor South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs. In addition, Geofeedia’s own marketing material bragged about its “national success” in tracking the “Ferguson situation” and referred to unions and activists of all stripes as “overt threats.” Though police racially targeting protestors and activists is nothing new in the United States, many people were unaware of the extensive collusion between police and social media companies.
Emails between the company and police showed that Geofeedia enjoyed developer-level access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, allowing it to review massive databases of user content in a way unavailable to the general public. Facebook provided Geofeedia with “Topic Feed Application Programming Interface (API),” a tool for media companies and bands that offers ranked feeds of public posts centered around specific hastags, events, or places. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, supplied feeds of all users’ public posts which included the physical location of the account user. Twitter offered “searchable access” of its entire database of public tweets. However, following the release of the ACLU report regarding Geofeedia’s collusion with police, all three companies have since ended Geofeedia’s access to these services – but only because they got caught.
These revelations further highlight the hypocrisy prevalent in Silicon Valley as tech company CEOs and representatives praise Black Lives Matter publicly but privately facilitate police surveillance of activists. Social media companies as well as other tech giants are known for their poor record of hiring non-white employees. Many tech companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook have previously tweeted and written about their support for protests focusing on racial targeting by US police, but have been criticized for only offering purely symbolic gestures instead of any meaningful support. The great disparity prompted former Facebook engineer Justin Edmund to say “Silicon Valley doesn’t care about black people.” Indeed, the ACLU report suggests this to be the case.
Yet, collusion with police is not the only problem. Social media sites continue to collude with the federal government in similar ways. Facebook in particular actively censors accounts and content of activists, particularly those fighting for Palestinian rights. Ultimately, this information reminds us of the need for new, independent social media networks that respect their users’ privacy. As social media companies depend on its users to make the content that provides them with income, they are dependent on regular people for their income. If people want social media giants to take notice that this behavior is morally wrong, it’s only a matter of logging out and creating people-driven alternatives.
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