Today, the ACLU of Northern California, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, urging the agency to investigate whether X (formerly Twitter) and Meta are providing surveillance companies that work with law enforcement special access to user data, contrary to the platforms’ official policies and public promises.
Multiple investigations by the ACLU and the Brennan Center, including new Department of Homeland Security documents released today, have found that surveillance companies are using the personal information of X and Meta’s users - such as their profiles, their posts, their associations, and their political views - to build government surveillance tools. These companies make millions through contracts with local and state police forces, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense, and other government agencies.
In recent years, law enforcement has used social media surveillance to target the First Amendment activity of the Black Lives Matter movement, track the location of abortion rights activists following the reversal of Roe v. Wade, facilitate deportations, and digitally trail refugees.
The letter argues that the gap between what X and Meta say in public and the developer access they appear to provide to surveillance companies behind the scenes could qualify as a deceptive business practice and violate separate consent orders imposed on the social media companies by the Federal Trade Commission. The problem of social media surveillance is increasingly urgent as companies adopt artificial intelligence technologies to supercharge their products’ capabilities, while cuts and layoffs at both X and Meta raise the question of whether these platforms have sufficient personnel to enforce policies designed to protect user information against collection and analysis by surveillance vendors.
To address this issue, the civil rights organizations call on the FTC to require that Meta and X create regular auditing and enforcement structures that ensure their surveillance prohibitions are being followed.
“We should be able to log onto social media without shady companies ransacking our profiles and packaging our private lives into police dossiers,” said Jacob Snow, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “If X and Meta aren’t keeping their promise to users – and the record suggests they may not be – then the FTC needs to step in.”
In 2016, X and Meta announced policies prohibiting developers from using platform data for surveillance after an investigation by the ACLU of Northern California sparked a national outcry. The investigation revealed that, unbeknownst to users, X and Meta were handing their users’ personal information over to select surveillance companies. Police departments across the country used this information to spy on and catalog Black Lives Matter activists.
Despite these promises, it appears that at least five prominent social media surveillance vendors have continued to operate on X and Meta: Dataminr, an official “partner” of X with real-time access to a ‘firehose’ of every public tweet on their platform; Babel Street; Skopenow; Media Sonar; and ShadowDragon. These companies advertise products that scan, extract, compile, and analyze social media activity, including the content of people’s posts, their locations, and their networks and personal associations. Some offer services that link social media content with other sensitive personal information, such as IP addresses, usernames, and geolocation information.
The documents the Brennan Center released today were obtained through an open records request to the Department of Homeland Security. These records reveal that, as recently as August 2021, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s law enforcement and investigation arm deployed tools from surveillance company ShadowDragon that provided the agency with information about users’ Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles, as well as their Facebook and Instagram posts.
“X and Meta have given their users their word. They said they will stop third-party companies from accessing user data for law enforcement surveillance. But these companies still seem to have access to Meta and X’s data, and the Federal Trade Commission must investigate, for the sake of civil liberties and civil rights,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, managing director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Users on X and Meta should have the facts about how these platforms are enabling companies that equip the police with user data so they can make informed choices about their posts, profiles, and accounts.”