Facebook says it won’t allow user data to be used for police spying – anymore

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Facebook Inc. and its Instagram photo sharing app have bowed to pressure from civil rights activists, creating new policies designed to prohibit developers using the platforms for surveillance purposes.

This comes after revelations last year that the social media giants were being plundered for data by law enforcement via spying software in order to target “unions and activist groups” and also “activists of color.” The surveillance software from the analytics platform Geofeedia also provided data from Twitter Inc.

At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union released a damning report redolent of Orwellian Big Brother nightmares, charging that “dangerous police surveillance” on social media “chills free speech, and threatens democratic rights.”

On Monday, Facebook released a statement saying it was cleaning up its act regarding the privacy of its users, adding a new clause to its developer policy not allowing developers to use Facebook data to provide tools that are used for surveillance. “Our goal is to make our policy explicit,” said Facebook. “Over the past several months we have taken enforcement action against developers who created and marketed tools meant for surveillance.”

Facebook didn’t exactly act independently. It was under pressure from groups such as the ACLU of California, Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice. Prior to the ACLU making its findings public, it said Facebook had been giving Geofeedia “special access” to its data.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director of ACLU of California, said in a statement that Facebook had taken the necessary steps towards protecting user privacy, adding that policies must have oversight and violators must have action taken against them. “Now more than ever, we expect companies to slam shut any surveillance side doors and make sure nobody can use their platforms to target people of color and activists,” she said.

Color of Change also praised the move, saying social media was a powerful tool that could be used by activists of color to draw attention to injustices. “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,” Color of Change said in a statement.

Image: Annette Bernhardt via Flickr