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Facebook bars developers from using data for surveillance

The controversy over surveillance sprung up in October, after Geofeedia sold data to law enforcement

Technology trends and news by Steven Loeb
March 13, 2017
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/491c

People willingly give up their data and personal information to social media sites with the knowledge that it will be used to send them advertisements. That's part of the agreement they enter into for signing up for a free service, whether they like it or not. What users do not agree to is data being used for more nefarious purposes than just trying to sell stuff, such as when it's used to surveil them. That's not what they signed up for.

After the ACLU discovered that's exactly what was happening last year, Twitter took action pretty quickly to ban this practice. Now Facebook has finally decided to take a stand against it as well, announcing on Monday that it has updated its policies to include new language forbidding developers from using "data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” The changes also apply to Instagram.

While the company points out that is has previously taken steps to protect its users from predatory developers and advertisers, including banning ads for payday loans, and getting rid of discriminatory advertising, the point of the new language was to make it absolutely clear this kind of behavior would not be tolerated.

"Our goal is to make our policy explicit. Over the past several months we have taken enforcement action against developers who created and marketed tools meant for surveillance, in violation of our existing policies; we want to be sure everyone understands the underlying policy and how to comply," Rob Sherman, Deputy Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook, wrote in the post. 

The controversy over using social media data for surveillance began in October of last year, when the ACLU of California obtained records showing that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram had all provided user data access to Geofeedia. Law enforcement groups had been using the data provided to monitor protesters, including those in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. 

All three services quickly stopped giving data to Geofeedia, but Twitter was quick to take action after against the selling of data as as whole, updating its platform in November to ban it. Twitter also used stronger language than Facebook to condemn the practice. 

"To be clear: We prohibit developers using the Public APIs and Gnip data products from allowing law enforcement — or any other entity — to use Twitter data for surveillance purposes. Period. The fact that our Public APIs and Gnip data products provide information that people choose to share publicly does not change our policies in this area," the company wrote at the time (the emphasis is theirs)

Twitter also outlined some of the potential punishments for violating the policy, including suspension or termination of access to its Public APIs and data products, which Facebook has so far not done. 

Facebook worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice on these updates. All these organiztion have all since released their own statements, calling this move a good start, while also asking Facebook to do more. 

We applaud this first step from Facebook and encourage all technology companies to stand on the side of history that supports human rights and dignity,” Malkia Cyril, Executive Director and Founder of the Center for Media Justice, said in a statement.

“When technology companies allow their platforms and devices to be used to conduct mass surveillance of activists and other targeted communities, it chills democratic dissent and gives authoritarianism a license to thrive. It's clear there is more work to be done to protect communities of color from social media spying, censorship and harassment.”

We commend Facebook and Instagram for this step and call on all companies who claim to value diversity and justice to also stand up and do what’s needed to limit invasive social media surveillance from being used to target Black and Brown people in low-income communities, said Brandi Collins, Campaign Director for Color of Change.