Skip to navigationSkip to content

Facebook and Instagram will no longer allow their data to be used for surveillance

Facebook WEF building
EPA/Gian Ehrenzeller
Not open to all.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Facebook says it wants to be absolutely clear: Its data isn’t for the taking by companies that sell your location to law-enforcement agencies.

The social media giant has announced new policy language intended to clarify that developers cannot “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” The new language also applies to its subsidiary photo-sharing site Instagram.

The policy revamp comes five months after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that more than 500 US police forces were accessing users’ location data from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram via the Chicago, Illinois-based analytics service Geofeedia. That information led police to track people from the 2015 protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, who died in custody, and the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown.

In the March 13 post, Facebook said it has “taken enforcement action against developers who created and marketed tools meant for surveillance,” most likely referring to how Instagram and Facebook rescinded GeoFeedia’s access in mid-September.

“We are committed to building a community where people can feel safe making their voices heard,” the company wrote.

While Geofeedia’s technique wasn’t quite illegal, allowing officials to scout US protestors’ personal information has a chilling effect—and an especially disproportionate one on communities of color. Social media companies have long invited activists onto their platforms, endorsed movements such as Black Lives Matter, and encouraged activism of all kinds.

“We commend Facebook and Instagram for this step and call on all companies who claim to value diversity and justice to also stand up and do what’s needed to limit invasive social media surveillance from being used to target Black and Brown people in low-income communities,” said Brandi Collins, campaign director for Color of Change.

Twitter already has a “longstanding rule” prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance, as well as a developer policy that bans the use of Twitter data for tracking and monitoring. Twitter never explicitly granted access to Geofeedia but took additional steps to reiterate its policy in November.

US attorney general Jeff Sessions is among those who have argued that federal law should have “an exception for emergency disclosures” built in for law-enforcement officials to access user data in important cases. Opponents say the approach would open a “sinkhole” allowing authorities to get access to users’ information just by asserting the situation is pressing.

Social media sites need to build robust defenses to keep the police out altogether, advocates argue. They add that certainty of consequences is more important than merely drafting policies. A letter from the ACLU, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change contends that any announcements must be backed up by rigorous oversight—and swift action for violations.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.