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Good or Bad? Facebook, Instagram Updated Privacy Policies Could Signal Industry-Wide Crackdown on Social Media Surveillance

Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram recently updated their privacy policies to protect users from social media surveillance. These updates could lead an industry-wide trend in restricting third-party sales of user data.

Facebook’s March 13, 2017 post states:

‘Today, we are adding language to our Facebook and Instagram platform policies to more clearly explain that developers cannot “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” Our goal is to make our policy explicit. Over the past several months we have taken enforcement action against developers who created and marketed tools meant for surveillance, in violation of our existing policies; we want to be sure everyone understands the underlying policy and how to comply.’

Platform Policies from both Facebook and Instagram instructs users to“[p]rotect the information you receive from us against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. For example, don’t use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” The updated language makes more explicit the companies’ prohibition on selling, licensing, or purchasing any data obtained from the social media platforms or their services.

Social media surveillance takes place when developers provide searchable data from social media platforms to law enforcement personnel. This data can be used to infer where a person is located, their personal associations, and even religious affiliation. The term “surveillance” is not defined in Facebook and Instagram’s privacy policies, meaning the social media giants have banned surveillance generally and broadly.

This could be good. This could also be bad.

On one hand, this kind of surveillance is a growing concern in the social media industry due to user privacy. Investigations performed by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of California revealed that Geofeedia was paid by law enforcement to provide searchable data – including locations – from activists’ public Instagram posts, publicly-shared information from Facebook via the Topic Feed API, and public tweets. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter suspended Geofeedia’s access to their data feeds out of concern for human and civil rights violations.

On the other hand, a commitment to ending social media surveillance may draw ire from the public in the wake of terrorist threats. Twitter recently blocked the United Kingdom government from accessing data used by the British police and MI5 to identify potential terrorist attacks. The U.K. government allegedly paid a third-party company to access the data before it was blocked. Twitter also blocked the CIA last year from accessing data after the CIA entered into an agreement with Dataminr.

In light of the public’s growing concern surrounding user privacy, the social media industry will likely see changes from both social media platforms and developers.

Social media platforms can be proactive in protecting user privacy by (1) updating their privacy policies to make explicit the prohibition on selling user data for surveillance purposes, and (2) enforcing their privacy policies should a violation occur.

Developers should adhere to social media platforms’ privacy policies or risk losing access to millions of users.

However, both social media platforms and developers will need to balance a commitment to social justice with public safety concerns.


Authored by Melonie Wright Jordan

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