Facebook bars its developers from building surveillance tools

In a post on Monday, Facebook says it is prohibiting developers from using the data it collects on users to monitor activists and protesters. 

Matt Rourke/AP/File
The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia in 2012.

Facebook now has an explicit policy barring software developers from drawing on data to create surveillance tools, hoping to stop police from using social media to monitor protests and track activists.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that police had used location data and user information from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to surveil protesters in large demonstrations. That unauthorized use allowed authorities to track participants in the riots and protests that followed the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Local authorities had garnered the information from Chicago-based data vendor Geofeedia, a company that says it works alongside organizations to “leverage social media.”

But that practice, Facebook executives say, violates the company’s ideals. Both Facebook, which owns Instagram, and its competitor Twitter moved to shut off Geofeedia access following the ACLU’s findings.

On Monday, Facebook moved to make an explicit policy barring use of its data for such purposes. The social media giant hopes to provide “a community where people can feel safe making their voices heard," Rob Sherman, Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, said in a statement.

“Our goal is to make our policy explicit,” Mr. Sherman said. “We're grateful for community leaders like the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice, who worked with us for the past several months on this update and have helped bring public attention to this important issue while advocating for positive change.”

Without an explicit policy in place, Geofeedia was given access to "Topic Feed API," a tool Facebook allows advertisers to use. The tool allowed Geofeedia to see posts that mentioned a place or event, and gave police the ability to track hashtags related to protests or movements.

The data provided to Geofeedia included only public posts, not those shared on accounts with privacy protections between friends only. Still, culling that public data from Facebook’s massive cache can be difficult for third parties, and having access to it via the company makes the data easier to comb through and sort.

Geofeedia had provided data to more than 500 local law enforcement agencies, according to the ACLU. 

Facebook's explicit policy states that developers who access user data to create apps should guard the information from use for additional, unauthorized access, such as surveillance projects.

Facebook isn’t the first to rollout such a policy; Twitter and YouTube have taken similar action in light of the ACLU’s findings.

While privacy advocates have praised the move, some have criticized the companies for not monitoring the use of its data earlier. Others wonder how the sites, which were not aware of the unauthorized use of data for surveillance until the ACLU brought it to light, can enforce the policy across the large platforms.

"It shouldn't take a public records request from the ACLU for these companies to know what their developers are doing," Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of Northern California, told Reuters.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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