Facebook bars developers from using data feeds for spying tools


Law enforcement officials are interested in software tools that can scan social media feeds for information that could be used to track and monitor potential criminals. To deter developers from building such tools, Facebook and Instagram have updated their policies explicitly banning developers from using user data from their platforms.

“Developers cannot ‘use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.’ Our goal is to make our policy explicit,”  in a post announcing the company’s latest update to terms and conditions.

Sherman said the updated policy was the result of months of work with advocacy organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice. Last October, the warned that Geofeedia, a company which makes social media monitoring software, was using data from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to help track protesters in Baltimore and elsewhere. Geofeedia had access to the Instagram API, which included any location data associated with user posts; Facebook’s Topic Feed API, which provides a ranked feed of public Facebook posts mentioning a specific topic, including hashtags, events, and places; and Twitter’s database of public tweets. Law enforcement authorities could use the software to see what people were posting regarding #BlackLivesMatter, where they were going, and who they were communicating with.

Shortly after the report, Facebook and Instagram terminated Geofeedia’s access to the APIs and Twitter severed the data relationship completely with the Chicago-based company. 

from February found the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had run a pilot program back in December 2015, and again in April and August 2016, to manually and automatically screen visa applicants’ social media profiles for any potential clues to problematic activity. The report found that automated social media screening was not a “viable option” and manual review “was more effective at identifying accounts.”

While it’s possible to assign agents to regularly monitor social media platforms, automation would help process large volumes of data and ensure key clues aren’t missed. In the report, DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis noted that “neither the private sector nor the U.S. Government possessed the capabilities for large-scale social media screening.” DHS has restarted the testing program in January and identified 275 software tools that can be used for scanning.

It’s not a big jump to assume that DHS will soon start asking contractors to build such a platform—if it hasn’t already.