Facebook Inc. said on Monday that data about its users cannot be used for surveillance, cracking down on a method police departments allegedly used to track protesters and activists.
The social-media company updated its data policies to explicitly prohibit using “data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” Facebook didn’t define surveillance in the policies.
The move comes a few months after the American Civil Liberties Union in October published documents by a startup, Geofeedia, that detailed how it tracked activists during protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. in 2015 and 2014 after two black men were killed during encounters with the police.
Geofeedia’s marketing materials, revealed by the ACLU, showed how police were able to track social-media activity in specific neighborhoods and get real-time alerts through Geofeedia. The firm also urged police to follow hashtags on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Inc. associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. (Instagram is part of Facebook.)
The report sparked a debate among advocacy groups over how closely Facebook was monitoring the way third parties used its data, considered one of the world’s richest sources of information on its users.
“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,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology & Civil Liberties Director at the ACLU of California.
By prohibiting the use of its data to track citizens, Facebook is asserting its power in the face of law enforcement. It also reveals the increasingly dominant role it plays in disseminating information.
Facebook’s granular data about its users is hugely valuable to advertisers and developers who want to reach narrow segments of people. But it has landed in trouble for privacy violations and potential misuse.
Last year, Facebook amended its advertising policy to no longer allow marketers buying housing, employment and credit-related ads to target groups by ethnicity. The move followed an investigation by news site ProPublica that it had been able to exclude any Facebook members with an “ethnic affinity” when purchasing an ad targeted to users looking for a home.
After the ACLU’s investigation, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter banned Geofeedia from using the platform. Since then, Facebook has cut off other developers from using its data for creating or marketing tools meant for surveillance, the company said Monday.
Twitter acted more swiftly than Facebook, updating its data policies in November to rule out the use of its data for surveillance.
Facebook’s moves come at a time when Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has broadened Facebook’s remit from “connecting the world” to creating its “social infrastructure.” One focus for Mr. Zuckerberg is whether Facebook “prevents harm, helps during crises, and rebuilds afterwards.”
Facebook credited the ACLU and two other advocacy groups, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice, for helping the company formulate its response to broader public concerns over social-media surveillance. In a collective statement, the groups called this a “first step.” Facebook didn't specify how it will monitor if its data is being used according to policy.
WALL STREET JOURNALFacebook Bans Use of User Data for Surveillance