Data's Brave New World

The ACLU has just released a report highlighting the growing relationship between law enforcement agencies and a Chicago-based company called Geofeedia. In a nutshell, Geofeedia is apparently marketing to law enforcement agencies a crowd surveillance tool that mixes geolocation with social media sentiment analysis.

This illustrates the gray area we operate in as data providers, especially those of us dealing with consumer data. Things that are perfectly legal may be seen by others as unethical and inappropriate. And, perhaps ironically, the power and pervasiveness of social media means that reputational risk becomes an outsized area of concern for those of us who deal in data.

On the one hand, Geofeedia is simply aggregating and analyzing information that individuals have voluntarily and publicly posted on various social media platforms. On the other hand, its particular application for these data can be seen to be chilling to lawful speech, dissent and free assembly. And as noted earlier, the law lags far behind these new technologies, and thus provides little guidance.

Facebook reacted to the ACLU report by quickly severing ties with Geofeedia. It understands that anything that creates even the slightest hesitancy to use its platform is detrimental to its own business. Instagram suspended Geofeedia as well. Even Twitter, which we have previously noted seems content to be a datastream for others to monetize, has suspended Geofeedia from commercial access to its data.

As we have noted, it’s difficult to come down on one side or the other in this issue. As a data producer, I think that aggregating and analyzing publicly available data is generally a beneficial activity. Indeed, what Geofeedia is doing is conceptually not all that different than the many social sentiment analysis companies selling aggregated insights to hedge funds seeking early warning on news and emerging trends. Yet at the same time, even if Geofeedia was working with the best of intentions, the optics of its product offering should have received greater attention. And that’s the lesson here for data publishers: just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should do it. Perception has become as important as reality. Don’t let ignorance or arrogance crater your products or your entire business. Keep firmly in mind at all times that, especially when it comes to data, optics do matter.