Monitoring Social Media by Location–Do tools like GeoFeedia invade privacy?

Post by: Kim Stephens

I recently saw a presentation about GeoFeedia,  a social media monitoring software system, at an SMEM-type event sponsored by the Metropolitan College of NY’s Emergency and Disaster Management MPA program. Their presentation, along with the ensuing conversation, inspired me to take a closer look.  GeoFeedia’s monitoring tool is unique among all of its competitors: it allows the user to include location searches for content versus only searching by keyword. Timo Luge’s blog post about the service describes why this feature is so important:

If someone uploads and photo a writes “Here is a photo of my house after the #earthquake in #Alphaville” it’ll be easy to find, but if someone simply writes “My house – so sad!“ you won’t find it using standard tools. And while you can use services like Hootsuite to show you all tweets in certain area, doing this is quite tricky and too complicated for most users.

Watch their video for a great one-minute description.

I encourage you to explore their website for details about what the tool can do, but below I briefly describe its 6 main features, including location monitoring:

  1. It enables “advanced location monitoring” which will gather–as well as archive—social communications based on the location determined by the user. For instance, if there was an explosion in an area, law enforcement could hone in on people posting about the incident who are in close proximity.  In contrast, if only a keyword search were used, then the collected content would include everyone discussing the event.
  2.  Keyword searches are not eliminated from GeoFeedia. The ability to filter social content and refine searches using keywords as well as timeframe, media type, author “and more” is included.
  3. Data is exportable in a feature they call “data portability.”
  4. Content from GeoFeedia can easily be published to your own social networks.
  5. Analytical tools are embedded that can help the user identify such things as the most active or influential poster, as well as trends, etc.
  6. The content of the geo-feed is shareable to people “inside or outside your organization. You can even share a live Geofeed stream with users that don’t have a Geofeedia account.” In contrast, other software tools, including Radian 6, have very restrictive sharing policies and explicitly do NOT allow sharing of content with non-account holders.

Do Geo-location Tools Invade Privacy?

Following their presentation in New York,  the question of privacy was raised, which I thought was interesting.  Do people expect some privacy when posting content to social networks?  If you are quick to answer “no” then consider this statement by one of the participants: “Ask any teenager if posting to Twitter and Instagram allows everyone to see their content and they will answer ‘yes.’ Then ask them if they would be OK with their parents viewing whatever they are posting and they will emphatically answer ‘NO!'” I know this to be a fact since I happen to live with two teenagers.  

Nonetheless, during a crisis situation it would seem that folks would desire government officials to see their posts in order to receive assistance. But in the world of law enforcement, this type of monitoring tool takes on an entirely different connotation. I can image that a law enforcement agency could use GeoFeedia, or something like it, to draw a virtual circle around a park where a festival is happening and look for information about illegal activity. Would people posting images and Tweeting at the event, for instance, realize they were being “watched” virtually? 

 Based on current law, it seems that these types of searches are legal and possibly even expected by citizens.  Law professor Jonathon Turely wrote a couple of years ago about our evolving societal privacy expectations in a Washington Post article about the then upcoming Supreme Court case Jones v. United States. The case involved a conviction of man based on his activities that were tracked with a GPS devise:

“This surveillance continued after a warrant had expired. But the Obama administration insists that no warrant should be required for the government to track the movements of citizens with such devices. The administration says that the new technology merely captures what can be observed, albeit in far greater detail. But the technology could allow the government to follow an almost limitless number of citizens in real time, all the time.” 

Professor Turely asks:  “As we come to expect less privacy, are we entitled to less of it?” The court did eventually hold that “the Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search'” under the Fourth Amendment.” However, the broader privacy issue was left unsettled.

How does that case relate to social media? Stephen E. Henderson’s in his journal article Expectations of Privacy in Social Media,  cites the Jones case and many others in his argument that the public really can’t expect privacy when posting publicly on social networks, however, they probably can expect privacy when an effort is made to keep the communication out of the public view, for instance with  protected Tweets and Facebook messages. The notion of control of the information is the key. “If the government  obtains information that was previously in one’s exclusive control, then it has violated the person’s rights.” However, if the information is publicly available, then there is no interference with a “possessory interest.”  This passage sums up his argument:

Whatever the precise definitions of search and seizure, the Court has articulated this general principle:

[T]he Fourth Amendment protects people, not places. What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.

This limitation makes eminent sense, in that police should not have to be the only ones to avert their eyes. If you tape a message on a window visible from the street, or place a pie to cool or a plant to grow there, a police officer driving or walking by is free to give it a look. According to the control theory of information privacy, you have chosen to share that information. Whereas if you carry any of those items on your person in public, but in an opaque container, the item remains private, and police must act accordingly.

Some social media is exposed to the public, such as an open-to-the world blog. It is not reasonable to expect privacy when one publishes something to all comers. So there would be no Fourth Amendment restraint on police obtaining the content of such a blog, either by bringing up the site themselves or via the third party hosting that content. The same holds true for a Facebook wall which the user leaves open to the public, YouTube videos left open to the public, and flickr pictures left open to the public. And the same holds true for tweets from a public account, meaning one for which the user does not restrict followers. Since any private person can obtain these things without restraint, the police can as well. (page 238)

Do you have an expectation of privacy? Does your law enforcement agency worry about this topic?  My treatment of this issue is admittedly very superficial–there are many different facets to explore. For a much lengthier treatment of the topic, I encourage you to read Mr. Henderson’s entire article, you can also see sites such as the  Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For another review and more information about GeoFeedia find a comprehensive post by Patrick Meier on iRevolution here. Despite the debate over privacy, I think GeoFeedia is a great tool and probably represents the future of how emergency response organizations will monitor social content in order to gain the best situational awareness. Let me know what you think.

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9 responses to “Monitoring Social Media by Location–Do tools like GeoFeedia invade privacy?

  1. Things are a bit different in Canada … my take on it is that if people freely posts on social networks … they shouldn’t be surprised when agencies/law enforcement monitors network for security purposes or for helping gather better intel after a disaster … The real challenge for public officials is once they gather data … they “own” it and have to abide by privacy laws/regulations regarding any list, document or database they put together from their social listening … Tricky stuff …

  2. I love this Kim. I look at this from a couple different perspectives. First, using a geo-targeted social search should, from a standard ethical perspective in no way invade privacy and without a doubt does not infringe on Constitutional protections. There is however a potential line in the sand when you look at recently developed technologies that record such content with the variable metric of individual identity. That is to say systems that link an individual’s identity over multiple platform and track / trend the activity between that platforms.

    From the perspective that we deal with, we are focusing and recording the information generated with the location simply adding context and the identity largely irrelevant. When the identity become the more clear contextual variable, privacy concerns could be come more significant. Just remember when picking battles over privacy, your picture and location are recorded every time you pass a license plate reader in many areas (including the State of Maryland) at every toll plaza and when passing many police cars and other various LPRs.

  3. Thanks for your comment Patrice! Yes, this is tricky. There are literally volumes written about this topic, I fear my cursory treatment of it only scratches the surface. I do agree with you, however, that there is a basic bottom line: there shouldn’t be an expectation of privacy when posting on social networks.

  4. James, that’s for your great comments and your point about “technologies that record such content with the variable metric of individual identity” is well taken. That also gets to Patrice’s issue of “owning” the data once you gather it. If people’s personally identifiable information is collected, then it has to also be protected. In fact, there are requirements for federal agencies. See this guide for a hint as to how complicated it can get:

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  7. Great summary of both the benefits and concerns of privacy and social media. Will definitely share this with several people with whom I’ve been discussing these topics recently – who aren’t on social media due to privacy concerns.

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