Facebook warns developers against using data for ‘surveillance’

Facebook warns developers against using data for ‘surveillance’
© Greg Nash

Under pressure from civil liberties advocates, Facebook has updated its policies to explicitly prohibit the use of company data for surveillance purposes.

Facebook announced the move on Monday after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published records showing that Facebook and other social media platforms provided user data access to a company that marketed its products to law enforcement for surveillance purposes.

“Today we are adding language to our Facebook and Instagram platform policies to more clearly explain that developers cannot ‘use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.’ Our goal is to make our policy explicit,” wrote Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, in a post on the company’s privacy page Monday. 

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The company said that it has been taking “enforcement action” against developers who create and market tools to be used for surveillance for several months.

“We want to be sure everyone understands the underlying policy and how to comply,” Sherman clarified. 

The company said that the update was the result of months of work with advocacy organizations including the ACLU of California, Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice.

Facebook and other social media platforms give developers access to users’ public feeds to track trends and other public happenings.

The ACLU released records last October showing that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram gave user data access to Geofeedia, a developer of social media monitoring products marketed to law enforcement to monitor activists and protesters, including those in Ferguson, Mo. Facebook and Twitter cut off access to Geofeedia following the revelations.

The ACLU and other advocacy organizations signaled support for Facebook’s move on Monday, though some indicated that more needs to be done.

“We depend on social networks to connect and communicate about the most important issues in our lives and the core political and social issues in our country,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director at the ACLU of California, said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we expect companies to slam shut any surveillance side doors and make sure nobody can use their platforms to target people of color and activists.”

“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.

“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,” Cyril said. “It’s clear there is more work to be done to protect communities of color from social media spying, censorship and harassment.”

Twitter took similar action in November, clarifying that its policy prohibits developers from allowing law enforcement to use its data for surveillance purposes and noting that doing so could result in suspension or termination.