Montgomery AL Jan 9 2017 For the past two years, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has used a service that allows police to pinpoint the location of people who are posting information on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.
ALEA still has a subscription to the service, Geofeedia, even though many social media companies severed ties with the company months ago, citing privacy concerns.
“To our knowledge, most of the feeds being delivered to Geofeedia are down,” said Robyn Bryan, a spokeswoman for ALEA, in an email to The Anniston Star.
Geofeedia was little noticed by most social media users until October, when the American Civil Liberties Union began raising questions about its use by police forces across the country.
The company is one of several “location-based intelligence” services that allow users to track social media posts and map out the locations of the people who post them.
Those services are often marketed toward businesses that want to shape online conversations about their brands. (Forbes magazine, in an article about the practice, warned businesses that “there’s a fine line between creepy and cool.”)
Twitter, Instagram and Facebook announced in October that they’d no longer give data to the company after a California branch of the ACLU found that 20 police departments in that state were using the service.
At least one California police department used Geofeedia to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, said Matt Cagle, a lawyer for the ACLU of Northern California, while another monitored protests against a visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
Through public records requests, the ACLU also found marketing materials in which Geofeedia identified unions and activist groups as “overt threats.”
“Users don’t expect law enforcement to be using these sophisticated tools to track their social media posts,” Cagle said in a telephone interview.
ALEA, which oversees Alabama’s state troopers, the State Bureau of Investigation and other statewide police forces, has spent $29,000 on Geofeedia’s services since 2015, state records show.
“Social media has impacted the way criminals behave,” Bryan wrote in an email to The Star. “They post about crimes they are about to commit or have committed. Gang-related crimes, burglaries, robberies and even homicides have been solved because the perpetrators posted information about their crimes on social media accounts.”
Bryan didn’t offer examples of crimes solved in Alabama. Asked which hashtags the state has monitored, she declined to answer.
“To preserve investigative techniques, ALEA cannot disclose its investigative tactics or procedures,” Bryan wrote. “Sharing such information would allow criminals to change their methods and patterns to avoid detection.”
Bryan also declined to name specific events that were monitored, though she did say the agency monitored “sporting events, concerts and other high-profile public activities.”
Bryan noted that when people post on social media, they’re making information public. Postings are “no different than a billboard on the side of the interstate, a public speech or a conversation between a group of friends that can be heard by a stranger sitting nearby.”
Cagle said there was a difference: social media sites offered Geofeedia “developer access” to their data, making it easier for the company to map out the locations of users.
“They were giving this information to the company on a silver platter,” Cagle said.
Attempts to reach Geofeedia officials for comment were unsuccessful. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram cut off Geofeedia’s access to their data after the ACLU report was published in October.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the company had laid off around half its staff of 60 employees by the end of November. Bryan said ALEA still has access to the service until its current subscription lapses.
Cagle said there should have been a public discussion about the implications of the social media monitoring before police agencies began using the service.
“Law enforcement shouldn’t be using these surveillance tools without some form of oversight,” he said.