Police agency uses social media monitoring service

For the past two years, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has used a service that allows police to pinpoint the location of people who are posting information on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.

ALEA still has a subscription to the service, Geofeedia, even though many social media companies severed ties with the company months ago, citing privacy concerns.

“To our knowledge, most of the feeds being delivered to Geofeedia are down,” said Robyn Bryan, a spokeswoman for ALEA, in an email to The Anniston Star.

 Geofeedia was little noticed by most social media users until October, when the American Civil Liberties Union began raising questions about its use by police forces across the country.

The company is one of several “location-based intelligence” services that allow users to track social media posts and map out the locations of the people who post them.

Those services are often marketed toward businesses that want to shape online conversations about their brands. (Forbes magazine, in an article about the practice, warned businesses that “there’s a fine line between creepy and cool.”)

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook announced in October that they’d no longer give data to the company after a California branch of the ACLU found that 20 police departments in that state were using the service.

At least one California police department used Geofeedia to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, said Matt Cagle, a lawyer for the ACLU of Northern California, while another monitored protests against a visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

Through public records requests, the ACLU also found marketing materials in which Geofeedia identified unions and activist groups as “overt threats.”

“Users don’t expect law enforcement to be using these sophisticated tools to track their social media posts,” Cagle said in a telephone interview.

ALEA, which oversees Alabama’s state troopers, the State Bureau of Investigation and other statewide police forces, has spent $29,000 on Geofeedia’s services since 2015, state records show.

“Social media has impacted the way criminals behave,” Bryan wrote in an email to The Star. “They post about crimes they are about to commit or have committed. Gang-related crimes, burglaries, robberies and even homicides have been solved because the perpetrators posted information about their crimes on social media accounts.”

Bryan didn’t offer examples of crimes solved in Alabama. Asked which hashtags the state has monitored, she declined to answer.

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