Facebook Prohibits Developers From Using Data to Help Law Enforcement Agencies Surveil Protesters

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By Lukas Mikelionis | 7:30 am, March 16, 2017

Facebook has banned developers from using data on its platform to help enforcement agencies to monitor people during protests.

The social media giant changed its policies following an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of California (ACLU) that discovered how developer Geofeedia used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram data to support US law enforcement agencies in surveillance of citizens during protests, Wired reports.

The ACLU investigation sparked a move by all three social networks to cut ties with Geofeedia, while Facebook changed its policies to make it clear it will no longer accept such privacy intrusion.

Facebook’s Deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman claimed in a statement that the change of rules will ensure developers cannot “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance”.

He said: “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.”

According to the ACLU, they used public information requests to expose the depths of the surveillance on social media. The group said they had uncovered expanding social medial surveillance “with little-to-no debate or oversight”.

“As we continued to comb through thousands of pages of documents, we saw emails from Geofeedia representatives telling law enforcement about its special access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram user data.

“In one message, a Geofeedia representative tells police that the company has arrangements with Twitter and Instagram for user data. Right after that, the representative promotes a product feature that ‘covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success.’”

The group claims to have found Geofeedia, which had 500 law enforcement and public safety clients, to have access to Facebook’s and Instagram’s internal data under the guise of being a developer. Twitter, meanwhile, provided a searchable database of public tweets.

The purpose of such access is normally given for commercial use rather than helping law enforcement agencies that could potentially breach users’ right to protest.

The ACLU also said that the tool was used to “disproportionately impact communities of colour”. Law enforcement “could easily target neighborhoods where people of colour live, monitor hashtags used by activists and allies, or target activist groups as ‘overt threats’”.

Social media networks were accused of “disconnect” when it comes to free speech, promoting and showing solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter, which Mark Zuckerberg proudly supports, while allowing the Geofeedia to use the social networks to share information with police about legal activism and protests.

In addition, the ACLU also warned about the lack of “robust or properly enforced anti-surveillance policies”.

Facebook has reacted to the group’s investigation and changed its policies, with the deputy chief privacy officer saying: “we are committed to building a community where people can feel safe making their voices heard”.