Following no shortage of pressure, Facebook has finally announced that data about its users must no longer be used to provide surveillance capabilities.
Facebook knows all kinds of stuff about you and your weird little preferences—from personal details you offer directly to preferences based on your clicks and likes (which can often do a better job of describing you than your friends can). And some of that information is made available to developers.
Last October, an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that a company called Geofeedia had analyzed data provided by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in order to supply police in Ferguson with surveillance information to track minorities. The social networks neatly packaged up streams of public data for Geofeedia that would otherwise have been impossible to gather without violating the websites’ terms of service. It then analyzed the information to find trends in users’ behavior.
When that news broke, the social networks revoked Geofeedia’s access to the data. But only Twitter overhauled its policies to try to stop the same thing from happening again.
Public pressure to limit access to user data has been mounting. Just last week, for instance, we reported that civil liberties advocates were more concerned than ever about the government’s “incidental” tracking of U.S. residents’ communications during surveillance of foreign targets.
Now, Facebook has announced that developers cannot use data obtained from either Facebook or Instagram, which it owns, to produce systems that can provide surveillance capabilities. Under its Platform Policy it now says: “Don’t use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.”
The ACLU has praised the move but points out that “written policies must be backed up by rigorous oversight and swift action for violations.” That process may yet prove to be more subjective than it seems. While Facebook has said that it wants its policy on surveillance to be explicit, it doesn’t actually expand on what, precisely, is meant by “surveillance.”
Does feeding any data at all to law enforcement agencies count as surveillance? Or just data that ties together a user’s behavior with some other feature, like location or race? And what about private companies that might want to keep tabs on users? The lack of clarity may yet give Facebook some room to maneuver in the future.
(Read more: Facebook, ACLU, “Scrutiny Intensifies on the Warrantless Collection of Americans’ Communications,” “How Facebook Learns About Your Offline Life,” “How Do We Stop Our Social Feeds from Being Spied On?”)
The worst technology of 2021
Face filters, billionaires in space, and home-buying algorithms that overpay all made our annual list of technology gone wrong.
A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click
Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.
Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever
Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.
A gene-edited pig’s heart has been transplanted into a human for the first time
The procedure is a one-off, and highly experimental, but the technique could help reduce transplant waiting lists in the future.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.