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Protesters march in Ferguson, Mo. last year. U.S. police at times used data obtained by a brokerin bids to contain protesters after fatal police shootings of black men. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Protesters march in Ferguson, Mo. last year. U.S. police at times used data obtained by a brokerin bids to contain protesters after fatal police shootings of black men. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Social media sites cut off data flow to U.S. company who resells it to police Add to ...

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram say they have cut off the flow of location data about their users – including Canadians – to a controversial broker who buys it to resell to police.

On Tuesday, the Chicago firm Geofeedia was revealed to have sold the material almost live to U.S. authorities who analyzed it, sometimes as soon as they got it. U.S. police at times used the technique in bids to contain protesters after fatal police shootings of black men.

In Canada, the same software appears to be widely used within the RCMP and is also taught at police colleges.

Michael Geist: How Ottawa revived Canada’s most controversial privacy issue

Such are the promise and perils of crime analytics, a fast-growing field hailed as the harbinger of more proactive style of policing but which can also inhibit people’s use of their civil freedoms.

Social-media posts are not generally considered private, and collecting them in bulk is not unlawful. In fact, corporations that want to advertise to specific groups often buy information from social-media companies and analyses of that material from “Big Data” brokers such as Geofeedia.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union unveiled marketing materials Geofeedia had circulated to police.

In them, Geofeedia touted its exclusive contracts with Twitter and Facebook’s Instagram unit. Buying into these corporations’ data allowed Geofeedia to glean location information from users’ postings. From there, the company could bundle off and sell the underlying user posts to relevant police jurisdictions.

One April, 2015, “case study” from the company showed that after the death of African-American detainee Freddie Gray, Baltimore County Police used Geofeedia’s mapping software to pinpoint the locations of clusters of protesters that police feared were on the verge of becoming unruly mobs.

Police looked at what people inside these clusters were posting to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Then, “in some cases police were even able to run social-media photos through facial-recognition technology to discover rioters with outstanding warrants and arrest them directly from the crowd,” the marketing materials say.

Such practices might well violate the rights to freedom of assembly and speech, critics say. “We’re hurtling into a future that gives our government agencies new powers,” ACLU analyst Jay Stanley said in an interview. Police computers now reap social media on such a scale, he said, that they “can crunch this data and discover things about people that isn’t apparent to the human brain.”

After the ACLU’s revelations, spokespersons for the social-media companies suggested their hundreds of millions of users should ensure their Tweets, posts and pictures are not geotagged if they are concerned about potential monitoring.

The companies also said they are cutting Geofeedia off.

“We have terminated Geofeedia’s access to Instagram’s API [application programming interface] and also to the Topic Feeds API on Facebook,” said Meg Sinclair of Facebook Canada.

Cam Gordon of Twitter said: “Our announcement suspends access to all Twitter data, including data from Canadian users.”

Canada’s national police force would not comment on Tuesday on its use of Geofeedia. Yet the minutes from a 2015 meeting show that an Alberta RCMP inspector touted “social media (Geofeedia) analysis” as a selling point for the force. The software is also part of a Canadian Police College “cyber crime investigator’s course.”

The watchdog agency for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service last month issued a public report urging the spy agency to stop “ingesting bulk data.” No specific software was identified to have been used by CSIS, a domestic spy agency gravitating toward its own, secret forms of predictive analytics.

“Social media is the big thing. You go where the people are,” said Manny San Pedro, a recently retired Toronto Police detective.

Now a crime-analytics consultant, he said in an interview that less than 10 per cent of users now geolocate their social-media posts.

Those who continue to do so are considered fair game for police. “The location data is being leveraged by marketing companies, and law enforcement sees that it’s there,” he said. And the police logic is straightforward enough. “Hey, there are social media posts that have geo-references – let’s leverage that.”

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