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Facebook Bans Developers From Using Data for Surveilling Activists

Auditi Guha

“The racist implications of social media surveillance technology are not surprising," said Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California. "We know that when law enforcement gets to conceal the use of surveillance technology, they also get to conceal its misuse."

Facebook has banned software developers from using their user data for surveillance with a revised privacy policy after sustained pressure from civil rights groups.

“Making sure there are strong policies in place has a very large ripple effect for the safety of community members. The action is incredibly important to protect activists and people on the ground,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, told Rewire.

Criticized for privacy issues, the social media company modified its Facebook and Instagram platform policies to clearly state that developers cannot “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance,” according to a statement from Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer.

“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,” he said.

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The change comes after pressure from a coalition that includes the ACLU, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice, which found that social media surveillance tools can unfairly target communities of color.

Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL rely on social media platforms to organize and spread information. Social media data have been used by police to monitor, track, and target organizers and protesters. The ACLU reported this has happened in Oakland and Baltimore.

“The racist implications of social media surveillance technology are not surprising. We know that when law enforcement gets to conceal the use of surveillance technology, they also get to conceal its misuse,” Ozer said in a blog post.

The ACLU of California found last year that Geofeedia, a developer of a social media monitoring product, provided 500 law enforcement and public safety clients with user data it had access to on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—including locations of protesters. After this was publicized, all three platforms blocked Geofeedia’s access to their data, CNN reported.

Federally funded fusion centers, which organize localized domestic intelligence, have used social media monitoring tools to spy on people, according to the ACLU of California.

Twitter has long-established rules prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance as well as a developer policy banning the use of Twitter data “to investigate, track, or surveil” users, according to the ACLU. With Facebook taking a step in the same direction, coalition members hope this will encourage other companies to follow suit.

Brandi Collins, campaign director for Color of Change, pointed out in a joint press release that social media is a powerful tool for people to highlight injustice.

She called 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.”

While the revised policy is an important first step in the age of social media, it “must be backed up by rigorous oversight and swift action for violations,” the coalition stated in the release. “Protections online require protections offline,” explained Malkia Cyril, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Media Justice, in an email to Rewire. “Social media companies can and must fight for policy changes that allow for devices and communications to be encrypted. They must ensure policies that limit the reach of federal, state and local law enforcement to conduct digital searches without warrants, and regulations that protect broadband privacy. At the heart of any type of human rights defense in an age of big data and authoritarian presidents, lies demands—it’s high time social media companies began to make them in support of user privacy.”

The problem with social media surveillance tools is that many of them are being purchased directly with grants and federal monies, with no public knowledge or accountability, Ozer said. It completely circumvents the public process companies had to go through when they approached cities and towns for funding.

The federal government has spent $1 billion per year for local surveillance since 2005, she said. A total of 156 cities, counties, and law enforcement agencies across the United States that have spent $5.6 million on social media monitoring software to gather information off social media on protests, potential threats, breaking news, and more, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The data collected outlines several incidences of abuse, from software company Media Sonar suggesting a list of keywords for the Fresno, California, police department to scan in order to “identify illegal activity and threats to public safety,” including “dissent,” “BlackLivesMatter,” and “WeWantJustice”; to the Oregon Department of Justice and police in Oakland “monitoring prominent figures of the Black Lives Matter movement by tracking hashtags on social media.”

Companies and users can protect misuse by encrypting messages and devices, enforcing rules, and preventing third-party developers from using their platforms for dragnet government surveillance.

Some companies, like Airbnb and Nextdoor, have worked to make their platforms safe from censorship, harassment and spying, Cyril said.

Like other developer policies, Facebook’s is broad and doesn’t define surveillance, but the coalition has called on Facebook to proactively enforce the policy rather than relying on automatic detection or reports from users.

“No one is doing this perfectly, but transparency, enforcement, and non-compliance with overreaching government requests are a very good start,” Cyril said in the email.

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