Developers who build apps based on Facebook and Instagram user data cannot use that information to create surveillance tools, according to a policy update announced yesterday. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, made the changes after months of discussions with civil rights groups.
The company began those talks in the fall after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California found many law enforcement agencies were using surveillance software to monitor protestors and activists via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter data. That software was provided by Geofeedia, a Chicago-based social media monitoring company.
Both Facebook and Twitter cut off Geofeedia's access to their user data following the ACLU's revelations in October. Yesterday's data policy update for Facebook and Instagram was welcomed by the ACLU of California, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change.
'More Work To Be Done'
Facebook and Instagram's data policies were updated to "more clearly explain that developers cannot 'use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance,'" Rob Sherman, Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, wrote yesterday on the Facebook and Privacy page.
"Our goal is to make our policy explicit," Sherman added. "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."
Malkia Cyril, executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice, said he applauded the policy update as a first step.
"When technology companies allow their platforms and devices to be used to conduct mass surveillance of activists and other targeted communities, it chills democratic dissent and gives authoritarianism a license to thrive," Cyril said in a joint statement issued by the three civil rights organizations. "It's clear there is more work to be done to protect communities of color from social media spying, censorship and harassment."
Ongoing Concerns about Social Media Monitoring
Last year's ACLU investigation found that law enforcement agencies had used Geofeedia's services to monitor protestors in places suc as Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore. In one email communication between Geofeedia and police, the company said its product "covered Ferguson/Mike Brown nationally with great success."
Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer called to investigate a reported convenience store robbery. The shooting prompted numerous protests by Black Lives Matter and other civil rights and activist organizations.
"Social media platforms are a powerful tool for black people to draw attention to the injustices our community faces," Brandi Collins, campaign director for Color of Change, said in the organizations' joint statement. "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."
The use of social media monitoring has also been criticized recently in connection with protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Trump administration's attempts to limit travel and immigration from some Muslim-majority countries. The subject was also the focus of a panel discussion on "Activism in the Era of Social Media Surveillance" yesterday at the SXSW conference being held in Austin, Texas.
In an October blog post, Geofeedia said that it was committed to freedom of speech and civil liberties, although its blog is no longer available on its Web site. The company, which hasn't made many public statements since then, also reportedly laid off a large number of employees in November.