Silicon Valley And Police Create COINTELPRO For Tech Age

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Above Photo: The data that was used by law enforcement to track activists of color. | Photo: Reuters / Wikimedia Commons

While Silicon Valley declared its ostensible support for Black Lives Matter, tech execs provided law enforcement with data used to track activists.

The most widely-used social media platforms have collaborated with law enforcement to track Black Lives Matter activists, providing police agencies with data that is unavailable to the broader public, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed Tuesday.

Indeed, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all gave “special access” to Geofeedia, a Chicago-based social media monitoring company whose marketing materials have referred to labor unions and activists as “overt threats.” The analytics platform was also used to help police track the “Ferguson situation,” referring to protests against the 2014 fatal police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb.

The ACLU was able to obtain emails between Geofeedia and police which reveal that Geofeedia can access users’ content in ways that the general public cannot – at the ‘developer-level,’ so to speak.

ACLU records indicate that at least 13 police agencies have used that ‘developer-level’ access provided by the monitoring company. One California police department in particular allegedly used Geofeedia data to monitor the activities of South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protestors.

The operation is reminiscent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s infamous Counter-Intelligence Program – dubbed COINTELPRO. During the late 1960s, the FBI used the program to infiltrate, defuse, and “neutralize” a range of civil rights organizations as well as anti-war groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, Marxist groups like the Socialist Workers Party, and groups fighting for self-determination such as the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

“The fact that third parties are making big money off of the sale and trading of our data with law enforcement is a huge problem and one that any social media user in this country or beyond should be disgusted and surprised by,” said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, which has urged companies to end their relationships with Geofeedia. “It clearly has a chilling effect on democratic protests.”

Facebook’s popular photo-sharing app, Instagram, provided Geofeedia access to its application programming interface, or API, which includes data like a user’s location. Facebook also allowed Geofeedia to use its “Topic Feed API”, which helps companies obtain a “ranked feed of public posts” centered around specific hashtags, events or places, while Twitter provided Geofeedia with “searchable access” to its database of public tweets.

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Only after the ACLU’s exposure did all three companies announce that they would cut off Geofeedia’s access to individual data streams.

This case isn’t the first time Silicon Valley’s underlying value system has come into question. While tech executives often articulate support for liberal causes, people of color face vast underrepresentation within the industry’s workforce. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, protesters have attacked the fleet of buses which transport workers to and from work and are seen by locals as symbols for the gentrification and displacement of communities of color.

“The companies have made strong public statements about supporting political and social movements, including Black Lives Matter,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California. “Now they need to make sure their systems are living up to their commitments.”

“The ACLU shouldn’t have to do a Public Records Act request to tell Facebook and Twitter what their developers are doing,” Ozer added.