Facebook tells developers to not use data for surveillance

In response to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice, Facebook announced today that it will clarify its developer policy to explicitly prohibit the use of Facebook or Instagram data in surveillance tools.

The ACLU has revealed several instances of developers using information gleaned from Facebook’s APIs to create surveillance tools for law enforcement, and each time, Facebook has decided to revoke access to its data. In October, reporting by the ACLU uncovered the use of data from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the surveillance software Geofeedia, which culled protesters’ posts from the social media platforms and sold them to law enforcement. Twitter also cut access last year to social media monitoring firms Snaptrends and Media Sonar, the latter of which tracked hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #IAmMikeBrown to identify activists.

Facebook has contended that this kind of surveillance is already against its policies. But its policy was revamped today to state that developers can’t “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” Twitter made a similar declaration in November.

“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,” Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman wrote in a post announcing the adjustment.

Facebook has cut ties with a few developers that make surveillance tools, and worked with several others to bring their apps into compliance with the policy.

“Social media platforms are a powerful tool for Black people to draw attention to the injustices our community faces,” said Color of Change’s campaign director Brandi Collins. “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.”

But just because Facebook says surveillance is against the rules doesn’t mean that developers will listen. Right now, Facebook relies on automated and manual detection, as well as reports from users and advocacy groups like the ACLU on products that violate the policy.

The ACLU, Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice say the next step is for Facebook to proactively enforce the policy, something Facebook argues it is already doing. “Facebook and Instagram should institute both human and technical auditing mechanisms designed to effectively identify potential violations of company policies, both by developers and their end users, and take swift action for violations,” the coalition said in a letter to Facebook.

Developers are required to disclose what they plan to do with Facebook data, and the company reviews apps to make sure they comply. Facebook says it also conducts broad audits in some cases to ensure developers don’t misuse data.