Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Jacqueline Hicks

Facebook Cracks Down on Use of Surveillance Data

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.


This is one of many updated privacy policy changes that Facebook has been making recently. In 2016, Facebook changed its advertising policy so that marketers who bought housing, employment, and credit card ad space could no longer target people by ethnicity. Facebook has also recently spoken out about accusations of the site supporting fake news. Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has recently expanded Facebook’s responsibility from “connecting the world” to creating its “social infrastructure”.


Nicole Ozer, the Technology and Civil Liberties Director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California, stated that the ACLU expects companies to “slam shut any surveillance side doors and make sure nobody can use their platforms to target people of color and activists”. World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee recently spoke about the growing fears regarding the misuse of personal data. Berners-Lee also speaks about how websites rely on users to give up data in exchange for free content and, while many people agree to this exchange, it also causes them to lose control over their information. In an open letter on the web’s 28th birthday, Berners-Lee outlined the many issues with the internet that need to be solved so that it can “fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all humanity”. While there is still significant work to be done to protect users from the misuse of their personal information on the web, Facebook appears to be taking a step in the right direction by beginning to outline its privacy policy in greater detail.


Cover Photo: Facebook All Over the World (2010), by C_osett via FlickrListed under Public Domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Jacqueline Hicks
Jacqueline Hicks recently graduated from Western University with a Honours Specialization Degree in International Relations. During her undergraduate degree, Jacqueline spent a semester abroad in Singapore studying global affairs and public policy. Her research interests include gender issues, women in security, globalization, and the history of the Middle East. Jacqueline volunteers at the legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth, as well as helps to create the social media content for War Child Canada. In the future, Jacqueline hopes to pursue a law degree, with a focus in human rights and social justice law. You can contact Jacqueline at