Facebook Is Banning Developers From Using Its Data to Build Surveillance Tools

ACLU and other groups have pushed for policy changes

Facebook says it's already taken action against some developers. Sources: Photoshop, Facebook
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Brands, media companies and nonprofits use Facebook’s data for a lot of different things, but the company said it wants to make sure tracking people isn’t one of them.

Today, Facebook announced it’s banning developers from using the social network’s data about users for surveillance tools. According to the company, updates, which also apply to other Facebook-owned platforms such as Instagram, are meant to “more clearly explain” its policies against surveillance tools developed for law enforcement purposes.

The move marks a victory for civil rights organizations, which have been pushing the Silicon Valley giant for months to make changes to its policies after the American Civil Liberties Union in October discovered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter data were used by Geofeedia to target minorities in cities including Oakland, Denver and Seattle. Last fall, the ACLU said there was a “disconnect” between the positions executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took in support of activists and the data their companies were providing to various groups.

In a post on Facebook, the social network’s deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman cited organizations such as the ACLU, Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice for helping the company better understand the need for changes to its privacy policies. He said Facebook has already taken action against developers wrongfully using its data for surveillance purposes.

“We are committed to building a community where people can feel safe making their voices heard,” Sherman wrote. “Our approach involves making careful decisions every day about how we use and protect data at Facebook. We also adopt policies that limit how developers, advertisers and others can use our platform.”

Facebook isn’t the only social network to pull the plug on developers using user data to monitor activists. As TechCrunch noted, Twitter limited access to monitoring firms Snaptrends and Media Sonar after Media Sonar was found tracking hashtags related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a November blog post, Twitter outlined its policies against monitoring tools, explaining that its APIs can not be used to help law enforcement “or any other entity” create surveillance tools.

“As a company, our commitment to social justice is core to our mission and well established,” wrote Twitter’s data and enterprise solutions vp, Chris Moody. “And our policies in this area are long-standing. Using Twitter’s public APIs or data products to track or profile protesters and activists is absolutely unacceptable and prohibited.”

In a statement today, Color of Change campaign director Brandi Collins applauded Facebook for the changes, adding that social media platforms can be a “power tool” for drawing attention to issues facing minority communities.

“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,” Collins said.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.