So­cial media re­scind ac­cess to data by po­lice con­trac­tor

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor and Ali­son Kneze­vich

Po­lice may have used fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware and a pri­vate com­pany’s anal­y­sis of so­cial media ac­counts to iden­tify and ar­rest peo­ple with out­stand­ing war­rants dur­ing the un­rest in Bal­ti­more last year, ac­cord­ing to a doc­u­ment re­leased Tues­day by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union.

The doc­u­ment was re­leased by the ACLU in Cal­i­for­nia as it an­nounced that its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the pri­vate com­pany, Ge­ofee­dia, had re­sulted in three ma­jor so­cial media com­pa­nies — Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twitter — re­scind­ing Ge­ofee­dia’s com­mer­cial ac­cess to their data.

In the doc­u­ment, Ge­ofee­dia touted its part­ner­ship with Bal­ti­more County Po­lice to pitch its services to po­lice in Glendale, Calif.

Civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates have crit­i­cized Ge­ofee­dia’s mon­i­tor­ing, say­ing it can have a chill­ing ef­fect on free speech and dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­get mi­nori­ties. Last month, The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported that at least five area po­lice de­part­ments paid Ge­ofee­dia to mon­i­tor, map and store cit­i­zens’ pub­lic

so­cial media posts.

Phil Har­ris, CEO of Chicagob­ased Ge­ofee­dia, said in a state­ment that the com­pany has guide­lines to pro­tect free speech and en­sure that users don’t “in­ap­pro­pri­ately iden­tify” peo­ple based on their race, eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal be­liefs.

“Ge­ofee­dia will con­tinue to en­gage with key civil lib­erty stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing the ACLU, and the law en­force­ment com­mu­nity to make sure that we do ev­ery­thing in our power to sup­port the se­cu­rity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple and the pro­tec­tion of per­sonal free­doms,” Har­ris said.

Ge­ofee­dia told of­fi­cials in Glendale that the Bal­ti­more County Po­lice Depart­ment’s Crim­i­nal In­tel­li­gence Unit had used its services “to heighten of­fi­cers’ situational aware­ness and help them stay one step ahead of the ri­ot­ers,” and that “po­lice of­fi­cers 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.”

At the time, var­i­ous agen­cies were op­er­at­ing within the city lim­its in sup­port of the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment.

It said Ge­ofee­dia staff were in con­tact with De­tec­tive Sgt. An­drew Vac­caro, of the county’s in­tel­li­gence unit, and “volun- teered to draw perime­ters around key lo­ca­tions, set up au­to­mated alerts, and for­ward real-time in­for­ma­tion di­rectly to Vac­caro’s team via email and text.”

Vac­caro’s team, in turn, was in “con­stant con­tact with the po­lice depart­ment and key city con­tacts, up­dat­ing them with real-time pho­tos and so­cial media in­for­ma­tion that could af­fect the safety of their of­fi­cers and the pub­lic at large,” the doc­u­ment says.

The doc­u­ment says Ge­ofee­dia also alerted Vac­caro to “in­creased chat­ter from a lo­cal high school about kids who planned to walk out of class and use mass tran­sit to head to the Mon­dawmin Mall protest.” It quotes Vac­caro as say­ing po­lice then “in­ter­cepted the kids — some of whom had al­ready hi­jacked a metro bus — and found their back­packs full of rocks, bot­tles, and fence posts.”

It was not im­me­di­ately clear which law en­force­ment agency may have used Ge­ofee­dia’s anal­y­sis and fa­cial recog­ni­tion to iden­tify peo­ple in the city dur­ing the un­rest.

Elise Ar­ma­cost, a spokes­woman for Bal­ti­more County po­lice, con­firmed that Vac­caro was in con­tact with Ge­ofee­dia dur­ing the un­rest, but said the depart­ment does not have fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

She called Ge­ofee­dia “a valu­able law en­force­ment tool” that county po­lice have used to iden­tify threats that would be “vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble” for de­tec­tives to man­u­ally track. She em­pha­sized that the ser­vice only tracks posts that users have made pub­lic.

Bal­ti­more County last year en­tered into a five-year con­tract with Ge­ofee­dia that pays the com­pany $20,000 an­nu­ally.

T.J. Smith, a Bal­ti­more po­lice spokesman, said he would have to re­search the claims made by Ge­ofee­dia in the doc­u­ment, in­clud­ing the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware by po­lice. The depart­ment has also faced crit­i­cism lately for an aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram that it did not dis­close to city of­fi­cials or the pub­lic for months.

The ACLU praised the so­cial media com­pa­nies for re­scind­ing Ge­ofee­dia’s ac­cess to their data, which they said was be­ing used in­ap­pro­pri­ately by po­lice “as a tool to mon­i­tor ac­tivists and pro­test­ers.”

“Be­cause Ge­ofee­dia ob­tained this ac­cess to Twitter, Face­book and In­sta­gram as a de­vel­oper, it could ac­cess a flow of data that would oth­er­wise re­quire an in­di­vid­ual to ‘scrape’ user data off of the services in an au­to­mated fashion that is pro­hib­ited by the terms of ser­vice,” the ACLU said in a state­ment Tues­day. “With this spe­cial ac­cess, Ge­ofee­dia could quickly ac­cess pub­lic user con­tent and make it avail­able to the 500 law en­force­ment and pub­lic safety clients claimed by the com­pany.”

De­spite the re­scinded ac­cess, the ACLU said ques­tions re­main about how so­cial media data can be used for sur­veil­lance.

Con­tracts ob­tained by The Sun through the Maryland Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act show that Anne Arun­del County, Bal­ti­more, Bal­ti­more County, Howard County, and Lau­rel have con­tracts with Ge­ofee­dia.

The Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment, which pays $18,000 a year for Ge­ofee­dia, said it has used the ser­vice to mon­i­tor protests, Fourth of July events, marathons and the St. Pa­trick’s Day Pa­rade.

Of­fi­cials with Face­book — which owns In­sta­gram — and Twitter said Ge­ofee­dia had vi­o­lated the terms of ser­vice for ac­cess­ing their data, which led them to re­scind that ac­cess.

Face­book’s “plat­form pol­icy” says that de­vel­op­ers may not “sell, li­cense, or pur­chase any data ob­tained from us or our services.” Twitter’s poli­cies ban the use of its data “to in­ves­ti­gate, track or surveil Twitter users.”

The ACLU said both Face­book and In­sta­gram ter­mi­nated the ac­cess on Sept. 19, and that Twitter sent it a mes­sage Tues­day say­ing it was “im­me­di­ately sus­pend­ing” Ge­ofee­dia’s ac­cess as well.

Bal­ti­more County, Bal­ti­more, Anne Arun­del County and Lau­rel po­lice all said they are as­sess­ing their con­tracts with Ge­ofee­dia given the so­cial media com­pa­nies’ re­scind­ing ac­cess to their data. A Howard County Po­lice spokes­woman said her depart­ment is look­ing into the mat­ter.

The on­line “con­sumer watch­dog” and pe­ti­tion web­site, which touts mil­lions of mem­bers, slammed Face­book, Twitter and In­sta­gram pro­vid­ing data to Ge­ofee­dia, say­ing the ar­range­ment led to po­lice “squash­ing free speech and protest” after the po­lice-in­volved deaths of Mike Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mo., and Fred­die Gray in Bal­ti­more.

“The protests after the po­lice killings of Mike Brown and Fred­die Gray were tan­ta­mount in rais­ing aware­ness about po­lice bru­tal­ity and the Black Lives Mat­ter Movement. With­out so­cial media, it’s pos­si­ble these ac­tions would not have had such a wide reach and re­sound­ing ef­fect through­out the na­tion,” the group said in a state­ment.

“This is more than just a vi­o­la­tion of our pri­vacy and free­dom of speech; this is com­pli­ance with a sys­tem that tac­itly con­dones in­sti­tu­tional racism and sur­veil­lance of com­mu­ni­ties of color — we won’t stand for that.” wear uni­forms, it is not con­sid­ered a part of the mil­i­tary in the way the Na­tional Guard is.

Of­fi­cials em­pha­size the pro­fes­sional level of training that their pi­lots and air­crews re­ceive, but say that be­cause they are un­paid they can op­er­ate for a frac­tion of the cost of po­lice or mil­i­tary air­craft.

Maj. Julie Hol­ley, a spokes­woman for the Maryland Wing, says it takes a par­tic­u­lar kind of per­son to be will­ing to drop their job and fam­ily and head out to a disaster zone to spend gru­el­ing hours do­ing un­paid work.

“I think the av­er­age mem­ber in Civil Air Pa­trol is a lit­tle crazy,” she said. “We’re ob­sessed with vol­un­teer­ing.”

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