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ACLU takes social giants to task over Geofeedia privacy gaffe

Matt Kapko | Oct. 27, 2016
The value of a social network largely depends on the quality of data it collects from users. However, it's easy for sensitive data, such as location information, to be abused, and consumers need to hold social companies accountable for their indiscretions.

Facebook facilitated exploitation of data

If the three social sites could have proven ignorance they might not have had to share the blame for aiding Geofeedia's social media surveillance business, but that wasn't the case. uncovered at least one incident in which Facebook used Geofeedia's social media monitoring tool to track and identify a trespasser within its corporate headquarters in 2015. Facebook knew how Geofeedia exploited its user data and willingly participated in wrongdoing to catch an intruder who allegedly took photographs of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's office and uploaded them to social media, according to the ACLU report. 

John Simpson, a consumer advocate and privacy project director with privacy group Consumer Watchdog, says it's one thing if Facebook, Instagram and Twitter didn't know their data was being used by Geofeedia for police surveillance and entirely another if the companies were aware of and encouraged the behavior. "If a [social network] knows that data that they have gathered is being shared and used by a third party for another purpose than what it spelled out in the privacy policy in the notice to users, I think they've got a real problem," he says. "They are very likely committing unfair and deceptive acts and violating section five of the Federal Trade Commission Act." 

Social media sites "have an obligation to see to it that the data that they gather is only used for the purposes that they say it's going to be used," he says. If a partners uses that data outside the scope of user agreements, or even facilitates that use, the social service is "culpable and should be held accountable."

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and their top executives, have all expressed support for free speech, social justice and the activists involved in movements such as Black Lives Matter, but there is a "severe disconnect between these positions and the data access they have provided" to data brokers such as Geofeedia, Cagle at the ACLU wrote. In some cases, the priorities of social networks also conflict with these causes, because the same data that marketers covet can also be used to potentially infringe on the civil liberties of social media users. 

Geolocation data is tremendously sensitive and poses a clear danger to user privacy when it's used for police surveillance, according to Simpson. Consumers need to take control of the location information they share, "because this demonstrates again [that] you can't have very much faith in social networks to protect you or your data," he says.


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