Social analytics firm Geofeedia hit by data crackdown

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Geofeedia Inc., the Chicago-based software maker with operations in Indianapolis, is dealing with a wave of negative press and investor concern after social media giants Facebook and Twitter curtailed access to data vital to the firm’s business.

The company sells social-media-listening software allowing companies, news organizations and law enforcement agencies to track social media posts in real time based on users’ locations. It draws much of that information from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

In late September, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California published a report suggesting that police departments used Geofeedia and other tools to monitor activists and protesters. On Tuesday, the ACLU noted that its report prompted Instagram to cut off Geofeedia’s access to public user posts and Facebook to cut its access to "a topic-based feed of public user posts."

On Tuesday Twitter tweeted: "Based on information in the [ACLU]’s report, we are immediately suspending [Geofeedia]’s commercial access to Twitter data."

The news caught fire Tuesday night and was picked up by outlets including The Washington Post and BBC, rekindling fresh debate about privacy and security in the age of the internet.

Contacted by IBJ on Wednesday, Geofeedia investors who asked not to be named said they were watching the situation closely but that it was too soon to gauge the severity of the consequences for Geofeedia.

One noted that Geofeedia executives are meeting with Facebook and Twitter officials this week to discuss a solution.

Geofeedia officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The firm opened an Indianapolis office in 2015 and signed an economic development deal with the state pledging to add 336 jobs by 2020 across all departments. But, as IBJ reported in August, it struggled to build a sales team here. It laid a few people off and decided to focus on software development.

As of August, Geofeedia employed about 30 people in downtown Indianapolis.

Doug Karr, who runs the local MarketingTech Blog, said he wasn't privy to the specifics but that Geofeedia's situation illustrates the risk of building a business on other businesses.

"They built a dependency on something," Karr said, "so in my opinion that was a vulnerability of their business model."

Kim Saxton, a Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor who specializes in marketing and digital privacy issues, said U.S. digital privacy laws are loose compared to other countries, but when users discover usage they weren't aware of, it can stoke outrage.

"In this digital world, people are not aware of what's going on," Saxton said. "But when they find out, they get really mad. It's not a good long-term business strategy."

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