Chicago-Based Tech Company Helps Police Target Protesters

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David Goldman / AP Photo
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David Goldman / AP Photo

Chicago-Based Tech Company Helps Police Target Protesters

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A Chicago-based tech company has been helping law enforcement agencies target protesters, according to a new investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

Geofeedia and other companies like it sift through data from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to analyze the location of users. The information is then made accessible to law enforcement.

These types of services are reportedly being used by police departments across the country.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California, wrote the report that’s drawing national attention to the issue and the company. She spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara Wednesday.

Q: How is Geofeedia’s software being used by law enforcement agencies?

A: Social media has become the digital town square. It’s where we connect and communicate about really important political and social issues. And what Geofeedia did was give police the ability at the touch of a button to search all the public posts on Twitter, which is potentially billions of posts. They had access to all of Facebook’s public posts, and all of Instagram, including the location information which might be associated with pictures.

We know that police in Baltimore actually used this service to be able to run photos that people had taken on Instagram of protesters through its facial recognition database and be able to target and monitor, and [they] actually arrested protesters using this type of tool.

Q: Is this something that the average citizen who maybe doesn’t take part in protests or post things like that publicly should care about?

A: Many people, regardless of where they live, have been posting about Black Lives Matter, or talking about police misconduct, or asking questions about what’s happening in different parts of the country [about] how we can make it better. All of those types of posts have been potentially swept into this web of surveillance.

Q: We reached out to Geofeedia but did not hear back from them, but they have a statement on their website that says they have policies and guidelines in place to prevent the inappropriate use of their software. Have you gotten more of a response from their company?

A: We haven’t heard from the company directly, but we found documents as recently as this July where Geofeedia representatives were still touting their product to monitor protests. So if a company’s business model is reliant on selling a service to surveil activists and protesters, the company’s got the wrong business model. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram took an important step this week to make sure that their systems aren’t being used for discriminatory surveillance.

But this isn’t just about Geofeedia. These major platforms which are such an important place for speech and connection and activism need to make sure that their systems aren’t used for surveillance for Geofeedia or any other company.

Q: You found that there were a number of police agencies that were using Geofeedia in California. What do we know about the Chicago Police Department or police departments in Illinois?

A: We don’t know very much about what the Chicago police are using, or not using, related to social media surveillance. We do know that Chicago is often on the leading edge of very sophisticated and invasive surveillance technology, so it would be very important to find out more information about what the Chicago police are using related to social media surveillance.

Editor’s note: A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department told WBEZ in a statement that CPD has used Geofeedia for major incidents, but any investigation of First Amendment protected-activity gets special designation and is monitored by city attorneys.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.