"Political speech and the freedom to engage in political activity without being subjected to undue government scrutiny are at the heart of the First Amendment," ACLU of Washington staff attorney La Rond Baker said in a statement announcing the filing. "Further, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from performing broad fishing expeditions into private affairs. And seizing information from Facebook accounts simply because they are associated with protests of the government violates these core constitutional principles."
SAN FRANCISCO – U.S. police departments used location data and other user information from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to track protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and Twitter shut off the data access of Geofeedia, the Chicago-based data vendor that provided data to police, in response to the ACLU findings. The report comes amid growing concerns among consumers and regulators about how online data is being used and how closely tech companies are cooperating with the government on surveillance. "These special data deals were allowing the police to sneak in through a side door and use these powerful platforms to track protesters," said Nicole Ozer, the ACLU's technology and civil liberties policy director. The ACLU report found that as recently as July, Geofeedia touted its social media monitoring product as a tool to monitor protests.
According to an ACLU blog post published on Tuesday, law enforcement officials implemented a far-reaching surveillance program to track protesters in both Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD during their recent uprisings and relied on special feeds of user data provided by three top social media companies: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Specifically, all three companies granted access to a developer tool called Geofeedia which allows users to see the geographic origin of social media posts and has been employed by more than 500 law enforcement organizations to track protesters in real time. Law enforcement's ability to monitor the online activities of protesters could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, the post asserts. "These platforms need to be doing more to protect the free speech rights of activists of color and stop facilitating their surveillance by police," Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California, told the Washington Post. "The ACLU shouldn't have to tell Facebook or Twitter what their own developers are doing.