Facebook now restricts developers from using data for surveillance purposes, after police were found to be using the data to monitor protesters
Facebook said on Monday night it would alter its policies to explicitly block the use of user data for surveillance activities, following revelations last year that police departments were using the data to track protesters.
The platform policies for Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram have now been updated to say that developers can’t “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance”, Facebook said.
The move is a win for civil liberties activists, which are pushing for more controls on how law enforcement bodies use personal data as the current US presidential administration takes increasingly aggressive action against protesters.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year obtained government records showing that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had provided users’ data to Geofeedia, a controversial startup that works with police surveillance programmes.
Geofeedia had helped police departments monitor demonstrators in places including Ferguson, Missouri, a St Louis suburb where protests broke out following the August 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer.
In response the companies cut off Geofeedia’s access last October, but until now Facebook’s policy contained no overt ban on the future use of the data for such purposes.
“Our goal is to make our policy explicit,” Facebook said in an announcement on Monday night. “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.”
Surveillance ‘side doors’
The ACLU, which is speaking on the issue at the SXSW conference this week, praised Facebook’s action.
“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,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director at the ACLU of California, in a statement.
But she and Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, called on tech companies to take action against government surveillance without having to be pressured to do so by activists.
The ACLU’s probe last year found social media surveillance companies had referred to unions and activists as “overt threats” and that a police agency in California had used such tools to track South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protesters.
In December the group’s findings led Twitter to block the monitoring of its users by federally funded “domestic spy centres”.
Chicago-based Geofeedia did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company said in October it was committed to privacy and would continue to build on its protections of civil rights.
Online civil liberties
The company claims to work with 500 law enforcement agencies and, as a developer, previously had “special access” to the social media companies’ user data, allowing it to collect real-time data without the use of prohibited scraping tools, according to the ACLU.
Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee said in an open letter published over the weekend that the increased use for government surveillance of social media data and, more generally, the troves of personal data collected by Internet companies, was preventing the web from fulfilling its potential to be a “tool which serves all of humanity”.
Beginning in 2015 the US Citizenship and Immigration Services began piloting software to automatically scan the social media accounts of those entering the US to check for signs of wrongdoing, but concluded the software wasn’t yet up to scratch, according to a report published last month.
Under immigration controls imposed by the current US presidentential administration the Facebook profiles of some green card holders have been examined to establish their political views before allowing them into the country, according to immigration lawyer Mana Yegani.
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