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Facebook Bars Software Developers from Using social network’s Data to create surveillance tools

police were using location data and other user information to spy on protesters in places such as Ferguson, Missouri.

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FILE - In this May 16, 2012, file photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad.VOA
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US, March 16, 2017: Facebook barred software developers on Monday from using the massive social network’s data to create surveillance tools, closing off a process that had been exploited by U.S. police departments to track protesters.

Facebook, its Instagram unit and rival Twitter came under fire last year from privacy advocates after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report that police were using location data and other user information to spy on protesters in places such as Ferguson, Missouri.

In response to the ACLU report, the companies shut off the data access of Geofeedia, a Chicago-based data vendor that said it works with organizations to “leverage social media,” but Facebook policy had not explicitly barred such use of data in the future.

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“Our goal is to make our policy explicit,” Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, said in a post on the social network on Monday. He was not immediately available for an interview.

The change would help build “a community where people can feel safe making their voices heard,” Sherman said.

Racially charged protests broke out in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the aftermath of the August 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer.

In a 2015 email message, a Geofeedia employee touted its “great success” covering the protests, according to the ACLU report based on government records.

Representatives of Geofeedia could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday. The company has worked with more than 500 law enforcement agencies, the ACLU said.

Geofeedia Chief Executive Officer Phil Harris said in October that the company was committed to privacy and would work to build on civil rights protections.

Major social media platforms including Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s YouTube have taken action or implemented policies similar to Facebook’s, said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of Northern California.

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Ozer praised the companies’ action but said they should have stopped such use of data earlier. “It shouldn’t take a public records request from the ACLU for these companies to know what their developers are doing,” she said.

It was also unclear how the companies would enforce their policies, said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit that opposes government use of social media for surveillance.

Inside corporations, “is the will there, without constant activist pressure, to enforce these rules?” Cyril said. (VOA)

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Facebook Forges Ahead With Kids App Despite Expert Criticism

Critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app

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Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down. VOA

Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook’s financial support of some advisers who approved of the app.

Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn’t be on such apps at all — although they often are.

“It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,” the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week.

ALSO READ: Why Facebook blocking posts in India is necessary

Facebook now gives options to add friends from the live chat. Pixabay
Facebook now gives options to add friends from the live chat. Pixabay

Lukeward reception

Messenger Kids launched on iOS to a lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics, and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched.

But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn’t hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn’t publicized them, either.

Facebook’s donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name of the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has an executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast, and Google.

“We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind.

Common Sense a late addition

But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn’t invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn’t include Common Sense earlier in the process.

“Because they know we opposed their position,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group’s stance is that Facebook should never have released a product aimed at kids. “They know very well our position with Messenger Kids.”

A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app, which it has not done. The company says it is “committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.”

ALSO READ: Facebook Realizes Internet Can Harm Democracy

Facebook has over 217 million monthly active users in India and 212 million of them are active on smartphones. Pixabay
Facebook has over 217 million monthly active users in India and 212 million of them are active on smartphones. Pixabay

Wired article unfair?

One of Facebook’s experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook’s pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article “unfairly” accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars.

But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids.

Bernstein, who doesn’t see technology as “inherently dangerous,” suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated airtime for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors is Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV.

But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a “misrepresentation” that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments “from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV” that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current “Truth About Tech” effort, which it’s launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology. (VOA)