Mass surveillance has been an ongoing issue in America ever since Edward Snowden unveiled PRISM. One of the big problems has been the discovery that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can buy entire databases, or even gather giant mountains of data, from innocent Americans and just hang on to those peaks and valleys of info, doing whatever they please. And Twitter just shut down an exceptionally shady use of that loophole by the Denver Police Department.
In late September, the Daily Dot outed a company called Geofeedia for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter will let developers buy databases of public tweets and the metadata around them, but you can only use it for marketing purposes, not surveillance. Geofeedia, however, was selling the data to police departments in bulk, as the ACLU detailed.
Denver, however, appears to have spent assets collected in civil forfeiture on the data, and it was approved directly by Denver’s chief of police, Robert White. If you’re not familiar with asset forfeiture, it’s a thorny issue, but it boils down to the police being able to seize assets used in or that they believe will be used to commit crimes. The police are in many cases then allowed to sell off the assets or spend the cash as they wish, creating a budget separate from, and less overseen by, taxpayers and government. Why, precisely, Denver used this money to collect the data, what was collected, and what it was used for are not clear.
While it’s great Twitter acted once it knew what was going on, it does raise some important questions. Is Geofeedia the only company that was doing this? What other loopholes might there be? And most importantly, how many police departments are collecting this data, and what are they doing with it?