SXSW

Facebook Tells Police to Stop Using Them to Spy on Folks

Coincidentally, a panel at SXSW today is about social media surveillance

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SXSW panel
Scott Shackford

Just hours before a panel on social media surveillance here at South by Southwest, Facebook announced a change in policy that would keep some of its data out of easy collection and use by law enforcement.

The news was broken by The Washington Post's Elizabeth Dwoskin, who by sheer coincidence was a panel participant here at "Activism in the Era of Social Media Surveillance."

The announcement was a response to a discovery months ago that some tech companies were using their access to massive amounts of social media data through developer tools to sell it to law enforcement agencies across the country. The police then use the information to keep track of citizens' behavior. These tools have been used to track potential criminal behavior—and also activists engaged in public protests.

Dwoskin wrote of today's announcement:

Last year, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter cut off access to Geofeedia, a start-up that shared data with law enforcement, in response to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU published documents that made references to tracking activists at protests in Baltimore in 2015 after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, while in police custody and also to protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 after the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.

On Monday, Facebook updated its instructions for developers to say that they cannot "use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance."

At the panel itself, though, Dwoskin said Facebook would be willing to make an exception for police in the case of emergencies, then pointed out that what constitutes an "emergency" is up to interpretation. When it comes to protests, sometimes police seem to think the simple inconvenience of them is an emergent threat.

A chunk of the panel's debate revolved around what exactly the expectation of privacy should be when people are willing to post what they're doing in the public sphere on social media. The data being provided to law enforcement isn't secret stuff, after all. It's what people are posting publicly. Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union said that's the argument police are using to justify mass surveillance via social media tools. They argue citizens should have "no expectations of privacy" for information they publicly post online.

Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program, noted that typical Constitutional interpretations and case law tended to find in favor of the police. Anything the public is able to see, police are also able to see. But, she pointed out, the courts might be willing to rethink the concept given that these social media tools allow for police to very easily keep track of citizens' behavior, en masse, for long periods of time. Under typical, traditional surveillance tools, this type of constant snooping would not be possible.

In addition, the reason why police engage in surveillance also mattered, she noted. Recall that mass surveillance of Muslim citizens living in New York post-Sept. 11 targeted them on the basis of their religion, an activity protected by the First Amendment. When this surveillance targets groups of citizens for surveillance on the basis of their protests of the government or participation in the "Black Lives Matter" movement, for example, that's a problem.

Read more about Facebook's announcement here.

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  1. Facebook Tells Police to Stop Using Them to Spy on Folks

    Police: “Sure, yeah, we’ll get right on that.” [snicker]

    1. I thought the Geofeedia angle was interesting. They can’t stop the local constabulary from looking at individual accounts, but they can create a TOS which bars larger companies from data-mining and then passing/selling that data to lore enforecment.

      1. They put an end to spamming and harassment by having a TOS against it too, right?

        1. Chasing down millions of douchebags is one thing, chasing down one or two (or a few dozen) companies that are caught violating said TOS is another.

    2. Or it could go something like this …[Facebook “Tells”Police to “Stop Using” Them to Spy on Folks.]

  2. Do operations like the Southern Poverty Law Center also monitor social media?

  3. At the panel itself, though, Dwoskin said Facebook would be willing to make an exception for police in the case of emergencies, then pointed out that what constitutes an “emergency” is up to interpretation. When it comes to protests, sometimes police seem to think the simple inconvenience of them is an emergent threat.

    When this surveillance targets groups of citizens for surveillance on the basis of their protests of the government or participation in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example, that’s a problem.

    Did we suddenly adopt a policy of not tossing libertarian bones? Has Reason been forbade from suggesting that the police not be surveying or invoking surveillance privileges without demonstrable harm or property damage? I thought Preet got canned?

  4. “They argue citizens should have “no expectations of privacy” for information they publicly post online.”

    As much as it pains me to say it, I agree with this statement. It’s not a privacy issue if you are publicly posting your information. Arguing that it does really muddies the waters and makes it easier for the government to continue the real invasions of privacy.

    1. Third-party doctrine giveth and it taketh away. But mostly it just taketh away.

  5. Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union said that’s the argument police are using to justify mass surveillance via social media tools. They argue citizens should have “no expectations of privacy” for information they publicly post online

    Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union said that’s the argument police are using to justify mass surveillance via social media tools. They argue citizens should have “no expectations of privacy” for information they publicly post online when they walk down the street.

  6. It would be nice if Facebook affirmatively excluded anyone acting in a law enforcement capacity from accessing their platforms without prior authorization from Facebook that way a lawyer could make the argument that cops were trespassing if they attempted to enter the Facebook website.

    1. without prior authorization from Facebook regarding a specific case

      It’s a bit of rearranging deck chairs but, again, one is narrow search and a/the accused’s ability to face his accusers while the other is broad search and figuring out what laws were broken post hoc.

  7. Public isn’t private. Simple solution: close your Facebook account. (or don’t create one)

    1. True.

      But, it’s also a little like saying if you don’t want the government to track your movements, don’t go anywhere.

      There are privacy settings in Facebook. If I set it to be friends only, then shouldn’t it be?

      I have a good friend that wonders why I won’t use an online dating site. Once you give the data, you lose control of what is done with that data.

  8. Does Facebook or twitter have in their terms about selling data? If so what is posted cant really be private

  9. Looks like Geofeedia is already feeling it in the bank account.

    Surveillance firm slashes staff after losing Facebook, Twitter data

    Business isn’t good at a Chicago tech company that was outed last month for its practice of buying social media data and re-selling it to police.

    Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Geofeedia had been given access to data by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which Geofeedia used to build software products for police that the ACLU called “surveillance tools.” Facebook and Instagram took cut off Geofeedia’s access in September, and Twitter blocked access after reviewing the ACLU report in October.

    Losing access to those social media data feeds seems to have had a big impact on Geofeedia’s business. A Geofeedia spokesperson today told the Chicago Tribune that it laid off 31 employees out of about 60 total.

    In an e-mailed statement to the newspaper, Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said his company wasn’t “created to impact civil liberties,” but after the debate spurred by the ACLU report, they’re changing the company’s direction.

    1. What do you know, the free market works.

  10. Right, how dare they sell to law enforcement the same stuff Facebook sells to advertisers. We have to have boundaries here people.

  11. The real reason is that Fakebook wants to sell the data. “I’m alright Jack, keep you hands off of my stack”.

  12. A. If the police have so much spare time and spare manpower and spre money that they can track so many people who have not committed a crime, then their budgets need to be cut.

    B. Cacebook, Twitter, and everybody else and all their users are fools if they think merely rewording Terms Of Use will stop mass data collection. If police are “forbidden” from doing so, they will find ways around that — get it from private companies or the FBI or NSA, tart it up with “counter terrorism”, simply lie about it.

    Trying to prevent the practical collection of all that public data is about as sane as teh EU’s right to be forgotten.

  13. You would be an ignorant fool to think some little sissy, wussy, weak child like Mark Zuckerberg would protect your rights.

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