Social media companies rescind access to Geofeedia, which fed information to police during 2015 unrest

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 Chicago-based 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 "volunteered 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."

The bus station at Mondawmin is a daily transit hub for students, and critics of the police have said the decision to mass police there while shutting down bus service on April 27, 2015, left many students stranded in a hostile environment and contributed to the clashes spiraling out of control and leading to rioting, looting and arson.


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."