Black Lives Matter protester Johnetta “Netta” Elzie wasn’t surprised by recent reports that law enforcement agencies were using detailed consumer data to track African Americans online.
“A lot of people are really freaked out about it, or whatever, but I can’t live my life like that,” she said nonchalantly. “I still live my life the way that I was. It’s not changing anything.”
An investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California found that police departments nationwide were using data meant for advertisers from the country’s most popular social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — to track black protesters. The report, which was released Tuesday, shows that 500 law enforcement agencies used a data-aggregating site Geofeedia to sift through and organize social media posts.
“I still live my life the way that I was. It’s not changing anything.”
Tech companies often field government requests for consumer data, but the real-time online surveillance Geofeedia provided was different. The Chicago-based company used platforms’ API software or “data firehose,” which contains text, photos and video content from messages, user location, interests, wireless provider, and other demographic information.
Advertisers usually pay social media companies for access to their firehose to better tailor ads to individuals, but retailers and law enforcement agencies can also get access. Twitter said Geofeedia, which is funded by the CIA, was improperly using the data when it provided it to law enforcement agencies as surveillance intel and shut off the company’s access. Facebook, which only provided the company partial access to the data, denounced Geofeedia’s practices in a statement and cut ties with the company.
Social networks are titanic because of how efficiently they help people communicate, helping burgeoning social movements become full-on political forces. But their true value lies within the amount of data they collect and, for better or worse, the seemingly limitless possibilities it hides.
“They just watch you…It’s more of a nuisance.”
But for people of color, such surveillance is expected and absorbed into the normalcy of everyday life.
Elzie became one of the premier faces and voices of the Black Lives Matter movement following the Ferguson protests in 2014. She co-founded policy research platform Campaign Zero along with fellow BLM activists DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett, and Samuel Sinyangwe. And since then, she said, everyone she knows has been on law enforcement’s radar.
“My phone has been tapped consistently for two years,” and “the police started following me coming home from protests,” she said. Elzie said she hasn’t been interrogated or brought in for questioning but knows the surveillance persists.
“They just watch you,” she said. “I’ve like adjusted to it…I definitely don’t move the same way I used to for my personal safety. Whether it’s the police or whoever might be a vigilante, I don’t put my movements online. I won’t put it out there until I’m actually there. People get real familiar,” she said of having close calls and confrontations.
“All of us have similar experiences,” Elzie said. “Everybody deals with it differently. You just go on living.”
Black activists have historically been subject to government surveillance and treated as suspected criminals. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali were all under surveillance by federal and local law enforcement agencies. Black Lives Matter supporters are no exception, but they differ in that the platforms they use to enhance public awareness and gain support is intertwined with information on their personal lives — information that can be used against them.
— BuzzFeed Tech (@fwd) October 11, 2016
Police departments have increasingly turned to social media to prevent outbursts of crime and acts of terrorism. And as history would predict, peaceful black protests against the police killings in their community, such as Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York, and more recently Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Ohio and Philando Castile in Minnesota, have been targeted by law enforcement.
The NYPD upped its surveillance efforts in 2014 following Garner’s death and resulting protests. Legal documents filed in late September show the police department sent officers undercover during the protests and requested “pictures, videos, audio recordings, data, and metadata,” the Guardian reported. In 2015, the Intercept reported that New York transit officers also aided in tracking Black Lives Matter protesters.
That same year, the FBI used thermal imaging to keep tabs on Baltimore protesters following Gray’s death, Fusion reported. Similar aerial technology was used to monitor Ferguson protests following Michael Brown’s death in 2014. FBI Director James Comey defended aerial surveillance to Congress last year, saying the public didn’t have an expectation of privacy from planes or other flying devices overhead.
“If there is tremendous turbulence in a community, it’s useful to everybody — civilians and law enforcement — to have a view of what’s going on,” Comey told the House Judiciary Committee in 2015, citing a 27-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision to justify the practice. “And sometimes the best view of that is above rather than trying to look from a car in the street.”
“I think that’s the point. They want to scare you so much that you’re literally shook and you don’t feel comfortable doing anything because you’re afraid.”
But the fight over online data is murkier, as data flows freely from personal devices and tech companies resist , and in some cases resent, government agencies repeatedly asking for consumer data. Yahoo recently denied news reports that it built software to sift through incoming messages at intelligence agencies’ behest.
Facebook and Twitter swiftly revoked Geofeedia’s data access, which was granted in the companies’ terms of service. But even in turning off the tap, social media companies count on third parties buying and using their data, making it nearly impossible to keep surveillance to a minimum without drastic policy changes.
As the Verge’s Russell Brandom pointed out, Geofeedia technically broke its contract with Facebook and Twitter because it “resold” the data to other parties, including sports teams, schools, municipals, and the aviation industry companies. But the fact that those parties are varied and largely kept secret benefited law enforcement. Brandom wrote:
Nominally, [Geofeedia] was violating Facebook’s provisions against reselling data and Twitter’s provisions against investigating and surveilling users…People use that data for all sorts of things — trading stocks, spotting trends, or identifying influencers. When people start to get arrested because of that data, there’s an obvious chilling effect, but the distinction between selling data to police rather than a hedge fund is hard to pin down. The problem is with the clients rather than the behavior itself — and clients are easy to keep secret.
Technicalities aside, online surveillance is likely to continue unless tech companies or Congress take action. In the meantime, the practice doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on black activism.
Elzie recalled how protesters use online tracking to their advantage. “We’ve put stuff out there purposely where we’re not going to be there, like a diversion. It works every time,” she said.
And there’s no sign of slowing down, Elzie said: “I think that’s the point. They want to scare you so much that you’re literally shook and you don’t feel comfortable doing anything because you’re afraid. But once you remove fear out of your life, you know…” The movement goes on.