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Facebook issued a clarification today, regarding the use of its data for surveillance purposes. The company said that it was issuing changes to its developer policy that will explicitly prohibit the use of Facebook or Instagram data in surveillance tools.

The use of Facebook data for surveillance purposes isn’t exactly new. The American Civil Liberties Union has time and again revealed instances wherein developers were using Facebook APIs to create tools that were being used by law enforcement agencies for less than scrupulous purposes. The ACLU has reported the tools multiple times and every time, social networking platforms have forced the tool in question to become redundant by revoking their access to its data.

For instance, a tool called Geofeedia was separating Facebook user on the basis of their posts. The main aim of its operation was to separate protesters from regular users. The app was then selling off this data to law enforcement agencies. There were other tools like Snaptrends and Media Sonar as well, which were being used to identify activists on the basis of hashtag usage.

Following public outrage after these tools were exposed, Facebook and Twitter decided to clip their wings by curtailing their access to the data they obtained from these social networking platforms. Meanwhile, Facebook has always held that its policies already prevent the creation of such tools. However, the company is putting everything in black and white just in case it wasn’t clear enough earlier.

As per the company, developers can not:

use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.

The purpose of this change in its developer policy is to ensure that no room for doubt or misinterpretation is left. As per Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman:

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.

However, the enforcement action is easier said than done. As someone with a fair degree of programming know-how, I can attest to the fact that it isn’t too hard to come up with tools that identify particular trends in social streams — say that bring back the profiles of all Twitter users who have used a certain hashtag. As such, developers making money by creating these tools aren’t likely to quit just because Faebook wants them to do so.

ACLU and other activist groups are arguing that it is necessary for Faacebook to take proactive measures including the introduction of manual and automatic auditing to ensure that its data isn’t misused. The social networking organization has reiterated that it is already working upon the issue. Clearly, it needs to work just a bit harder.

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