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Facebook, Instagram: No, you can't auto-slurp our profiles (cough, cough, border officials)

Mining social media accounts is our job, Uncle Sam

By Iain Thomson, 13 Mar 2017

Facebook and its snap-sharing app Instagram have updated their terms and conditions to bar developers from scanning profiles for surveillance purposes.

On Friday a report from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) showed that border patrol officers had tried automatically scanning visa applicants' social media profiles to catch terrorists. The DHS boffins admitted their software didn't work properly, and that it was looking for companies to help improve the system.

With all that government contractor cash floating around, development outfits are no doubt gearing up to cash in. But they'll have to do it without Facebook and Instagram's data feeds.

"Developers cannot 'use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.' Our goal is to make our policy explicit," Facebook said.

"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."

Facebook is coming a little late to this. Last year Twitter announced it was cutting off data feeds for such software after Chicago-based company Geofeedia began using the streams of tweets for an app that allowed police to track peaceful protestors. Civil and internet rights groups have also been calling on companies to protect their users.

"We depend on social networks to connect and communicate about the most important issues in our lives and the core political and social issues in our country," said Nicole Ozer, civil liberties director for the American Civil Liberties Union in California.

"Now more than ever, we expect companies to slam shut any surveillance side doors and make sure nobody can use their platforms to target people of color and activists."

Of course, that doesn't mean much given the US government's powers to demand data from Facebook via National Security Letters, or through the PRISM program and similar secret slurping activities. It also won't stop Facebook and Instagram from mining everyone's data and selling it to advertisers.

But the public stance by Facebook is a welcome one in increasingly worrying times for those concerned about internet privacy, or the lack of it. It won't do much, but every little bit helps. ®

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