On March 13, 2017, Facebook released a statement on its Privacy Page, highlighting that the company has updated its policies so that user data could not be used for surveillance purposes. The statement reads that developers cannot “use data obtained from [Facebook] to provide tools that are used for surveillance”, as they are committed to building a community where “people can feel safe making their voices heard”. Prior to this update, Facebook did not have a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from taking its users’ data for surveillance.
The updated policy follows the release of documents from the American Civil Liberties Union in October of the previous year that detailed how the company Geofeedia tracked activists during protests in Baltimore and Ferguson in 2014 and 2015. The reports show how software was provided by Geofeedia for police to track social media activity and get real-time alerts from specific neighborhoods. Since October 2016, both Facebook and Twitter have cut off Geofeedia’s access to their user data.
It is important to note, however, that this updated policy does not remove law enforcement from having access to Facebook’s public data. The company is committed to cooperate with law enforcement on a case-by case basis. Another gray area is that Facebook did not explicitly define “surveillance” in its statement, leaving the possibility for outsiders to interpret this in a different way.
While the majority of Facebook’s earnings comes from advertisements, the company also provides developers access to an individual user’s public feed. Developers then use this information to track trends and public events, as well as to monitor data. Facebook users can publically share any posts—photos, friend lists, locations visited, birthdays, education, and work history, among other information. However, Facebook has not always been clear about who can use the data that users choose to publicly share on their profile. Access to this data may be used in a positive way as it can provide real-time updates during disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy. Many also argue that this data can help fight crime if suspected criminals post public information on their profiles.
Cover Photo: Facebook All Over the World (2010), by C_osett via Flickr. Listed under Public Domain.
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