Professionalism/Geofeedia, Social Media, and Law Enforcement
Geofeedia’s location-based analytics software allows users to find and filter through “social media [posts] by location” . A marketing video Geofeedia posted to YouTube in 2012 shows their software being marketed directly for law enforcement and journalist use. Geofeedia’s software was not designed or intended to be used by an average, everyday person.
On their website, Geofeedia advertises their past successful use cases in Marketing & Advertising, Corporate Security, Public Sector, Education, and Partnerships. These include but are not limited to, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), 2012 London Olympics, and corporate security. Details regarding how Geofeedia was used in each of those cases is difficult to come by; those pages on their website lead to an expired HubSpot blog account.
On April 12, 2015 Baltimore police arrested Black American man Freddie Gray for alleged possession of an illegal switchblade.  While being transported in the police van, he fell into a coma.  A week later on April 19, Gray died from injuries to his spinal cord. 
This was not the first incident to occur that sparked racial tension and debate about increased police brutality towards people of color, especially Black men. After incidents such as Ferguson's Michael Brown there was increased pressure on law enforcement from both the media and social media users.
Baltimore Police Department
The Baltimore Police Department actively worked with Geofeedia on scene at the Freddie Gray rallies from April to May 2015. In a Geofeedia case study article Detective Sergeant Andrew Vaccaro said, “The minute his death was announced, we knew we needed to monitor social media data at key locations where protesting was likely.”  The Baltimore PD also paid about $18K annually on contract  in order to use the Geofeedia location-based social media analytics software. The police used Geofeedia combined with facial recognition technology to physically locate protesters with outstanding warrants at the rally.  The use of Geofeedia is where this case started to get a bit controversial. Vaccaro stated that the police were simply doing their best to “heighten officers’ situational awareness and … stay one step ahead of the rioters.”  On the other hand, some people believed this use of technology was unfair targeting of people of color and a breach of privacy and free speech.
Participants and Their Agendas
- The Baltimore Police Department wanted to maintain public safety in light of the Freddie Gray incident. Given past events and the current political climate on race and law enforcement, they knew riots were going to happen and they wanted to be prepared.
- Geofeedia as a startup wanted to expand their location based social media analytics platform’s usage. They also wanted to partner with local law enforcement to maintain public safety.
- Protesters at the Freddie Gray rallies wanted to freely express their opinions of the Freddie Gray incident and wanted to hold the police accountable for unjust brutality.
- Social media users wanted to promote their cause online, have their opinions heard, and participate in the Black Lives Matter rally.
- Social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram wanted to maintain the security and privacy of their users in order to keep their trusted reputation and popularity.
On October 11, 2016 the ACLU released a letter  informing the public that Geofeedia had access to Twitter and Facebook user data. They commended the companies for suspending or restraining access to their data upon hearing how Geofeedia was using the data. The ACLU cautions, though, that steps will have to be taken by Facebook and Twitter to ensure their users’ data is not being abused by third party applications. The ACLU points out that Geofeedia had direct contact with law enforcement advertising Geofeedia’s success covering the Ferguson protests. The report goes on to say that despite Twitter learning how their data was being used and attempting to clamp down, Geofeedia still advertised how their software can be used for surveillance.
In another report by the ACLU discussing police use of media surveillance software Nicole Ozer says "We found no evidence in the documents of any public notice, debate, community input, or lawmaker vote about use of this invasive surveillance. And no agency produced a use policy that would limit how the tools were used and help protect civil rights and civil liberties." Geofeedia was among the surveillance software being discussed.
Twitter did not revoke access to Geofeedia until after they read the ACLU article, responding in a tweet:
“Based on information in the @ACLU’s report, we are immediately suspending @Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.”
Geofeedia was in direct violation of Twitter’s Developer Agreement & Policy which stated: developers will not knowingly display, distribute, or otherwise make available Content to any entity to investigate, track or surveil Twitter’s users or their content.
Facebook also cut ties with Geofeedia, though they stated “[Geofeedia] only had access to data that people chose to make public. Its access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy, which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data using the Facebook Platform. If a developer uses our APIs in a way that has not been authorized, we will take swift action to stop them and we will end our relationship altogether if necessary.”
Geofeedia’s CEO Phil Harris responded saying, “Geofeedia is committed to the principles of personal privacy, transparency and both the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to individual rights. Our platform provides some clients, including law enforcement officials across the country, with a critical tool in helping to ensure public safety… Geofeedia has in place clear policies and guidelines to prevent the inappropriate use of our software; these include protections related to free speech and ensuring that end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors. That said, we understand, given the ever-changing nature of digital technology, that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights.” Geofeedia has reportedly downsized since the report has come out, letting go of 31 of their approximately 60 employees. Phil Harris says geofeedia wasn’t created to impact civil liberties; he attributes the downsizing to Geofeedia making a change in direction.
Geofeedia’s marketing video from 2012 mentions creating a free geofeed with GeoStreamer; there is no trace of GeoStreamer left on the internet today. There is currently no way to request a demo, nor any contact information given on their website. Geofeedia's social media presence has been inactive since the day after the release of the ACLU article.
Freedom of Speech and Assembly
The concern for safety meets the concern for privacy when law enforcement uses Geofeedia to survey citizens. Law enforcement’s actions also bring up questions about the freedom of speech. If social media is considered a safe space under the first amendment, then social media users should be protected. However, if social media helps law enforcement better do their job, then where is the line drawn? The city and law enforcement maintain the position that because social media posts are in the public sphere, there is no guarantee of privacy. Social media users believe they should not be at risk of being branded a risk to public safety simply for speaking their mind on social media . This conflict between the public and the city promotes distrust within the community.
Increased Racial Tensions
The manifest function of Geofeedia is to promote safety at events such as riots (some of which are racially oriented), marches, and parades. However, the third party application ends up allowing law enforcement to target racial minorities and catch criminals with outstanding warrants. Any event with a large gathering appropriate for police presence is conducive to Geofeedia use. This is not received well on the end of those being prosecuted as a result of Geofeedia and social media. The sole purpose of social media is to promote the sharing of information and, often times, personal details. However, with Geofeedia tied into the equation, social media users are receiving backlash and facing unintended consequences from the information they choose to share online.
Some might argue that this increased surveillance actually hurts the police’s agenda of increasing safety efforts. Extraneous data makes it hard for law enforcement to separate actual threats from innocent people. As a result, consequences of decision fatigue, a phenomenon whereby extended sessions of decision making deteriorates the quality of decisions, can arise.
Lessons in Professional Ethics
Social Media Giants
With the release of the ACLU letter on October 11, 2016 social media giants became aware of the potential threat to user data and cut ties with Geofeedia later that same day. Some argue that the social media magnates could have been more watchful and careful of giving such powerful access to third party applications. The professional flaw here is that they trusted Geofeedia, to the extent that not enough secondary security measures were implemented to monitor third party access. In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to have a system to monitor or audit Geofeedia.
Their agenda consisted of methods to get around the privacy agreements they laid out. Geofeedia stated that they want to eventually find ways to get to a hold of users’ private data. They even came up with one solution involving the creation of dummy accounts in order to follow users and have access to their posts. Geofeedia should have been more explicit about their intentions. Their mission had a latent function of discriminating against communities of color and low income areas, as this is where most the protests happen. This resulted in a large population of people who felt their rights were being threatened. It is a positive feedback loop of distrust fueling anger fueling action from law enforcement.
A lot the animosity and tensions from all parties could have been averted with more careful action. It boils down to a lack of transparency. Communication is an essential part of any professional relationship. This way, if there is a clear violation of contract finding the responsible party becomes much easier. More responsibility and accountability is also placed on all parties involved, creating a more professional environment for honest action.
- Mulroy, Michael (2012). “Geofeedia”
- Barajas, Joshua (May 1, 2015). Freddie Gray's death ruled a homicide
- Laughland, Oliver; Swaine, Jon (April 20, 2015). Six Baltimore officers suspended over police-van death of Freddie Gray
- Graham, David A. (April 22, 2015). The Mysterious Death of Freddie Gray
- Arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore]” Geofeedia (October 11, 2016). Baltimore County Polic Department and Geofeedia Partner to Protect the Public During Freddie Gray Riots
- Knezevich, Alison (September 5, 2016). Police in Baltimore, surrounding communities using Geofeedia to monitor social media posts
- Cagle, M. (2011). Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter Provided Data Access for a Surveillance Product Marketed to Target Activists of Color
- Ozer, N (2016). Police Use of Social Media Surveillance Software Is Escalating, and Activists Are in the Digital Crosshairs
- @Policy (2011).Twitter's Response to Geofeedia
- Twitter (2016). Agreement and Policy
- Kolodny, L (2011). Facebook, Twitter cut off data access for Geofeedia, a social media surveillance startup
- Kolodny, L (2011). Facebook, Twitter cut off data access for Geofeedia, a social media surveillance startup
- Elahi, A (2016). Geofeedia cuts half of staff after losing access to Twitter, Facebook
- Mulroy, M (2005). Geofeedia Geofeedia has pioneered social media search by location.
- ACLU: Police use of Geofeedia may have effect on freedom of speech. Perf. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Youtube. WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore. N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web.