Using Facebook in an era of mass deportation

For many across the country, learning about the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the first time they became aware of how their data and security are often compromised by the social media platforms we engage with every day. As law enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) continue to function unshackled by the new administration, immigrant communities, activists, and other marginalized folks in the U.S. face increased threats to their safety and security that go far beyond Cambridge Analytica. Understanding how we engage with social media platforms, and how information can be collected and potentially used against us is critical to our community defense.

To better understand how we can address people’s concerns around Facebook, we worked with our partners at Make the Road New York to compile a list of digital security questions from immigrant community members. Thanks to our Tech Advocacy Program Manager, Dia Kayyali, data and security expert Sarah Aoun, and public defender and social justice lawyer with Legal Aid, Bina Ahmad, we were able to answer those questions below as we work together to keep our movements safe.

Here are the questions we’re hearing the most:

Should I delete my Facebook account?

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, many users have considered quitting Facebook, and some people have advocated doing so to protest the company’s data collection practices.

Quitting the platform, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds, and for many, simply not a practical or realistic solution – especially not for activists and organizers across the country who rely on Facebook as an organizing tool and way to amplify messages.

Not only is Facebook the primary way that some people stay in touch with their friends and family around the globe, but it has enabled all sorts of people to find community, support, develop businesses, or leverage audiences for advocacy campaigns and build activism. Grassroots organizers, activists, and human rights defenders use the platform to organize, educate, and share news. And if folks are not actively using Facebook, they’re most likely still making use of its products such as Whatsapp or Instagram.

There is also a more practical matter about Facebook, which is the use of Facebook authentication for other applications. For many people, their Spotify account, for instance, is tied to their Facebook login. Deleting Facebook means that people will either have to create different login access to tied accounts or simply not be able to use them at all if Facebook is the only means of authentication.

For many, getting off the platform equates to losing their community, their business, or their ability to plan and organize. There are, however, ways of remaining on Facebook and having more control over what you choose to share with the platform. As a user, you can

  • Revoke permission from third-party applications (and not share data across platforms)
  • Limit the information Facebook shares with advertisers
  • Choose what information you share about yourself (birthday, education, places you’ve lived)
  • Limit your privacy settings throughout.

See here for more tips on actions you can take to keep yourself safe.

Whether or not you delete Facebook, your data can unfortunately still be tracked and harvested online, because of how business models and ad tracking are built into the platform. By allowing Facebook to have access to your list of contacts, for instance, not only are you sharing your own information with the platform but the information of everyone in your phone’s contact list as well. Take the case of Daniel Kahn Gillmor, an ACLU technologist, whose information is available to Facebook despite not being on the platform, by sheer virtue of his network of friends and acquaintances that use the platform.

If it makes sense for you to leave Facebook and associated accounts (Instagram, Whatsapp), then you have that right and that control. Not leaving Facebook is also a valid and legitimate choice, and you can make sure to limit the information you share with the platform as much as you are comfortable with, and hopefully, expect Facebook to respect privacy rights.

Read more about WITNESS’ thoughts on whether or not you should delete Facebook. Spoiler alert: We think not just yet.

What kind of information does law enforcement have access to about me on Facebook?

There are three kinds of data law enforcement can get from Facebook:
1. At the most basic level, law enforcement can and does get open-source and publicly available data, such as your photos, posts, likes, comments. This is a well-documented use of data by ICE at this point. Rachel K. Prandini, staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said in a recent Intercept story that “Photos with friends ICE thinks are gang members, doing hand signs that ICE alleges are gang signs or wearing clothes that ICE believes indicate gang membership are being pulled from Facebook and submitted as evidence in immigration court proceedings.”

Fortunately, you have a lot of settings regarding what is public on Facebook. Some data is always public, including your name, profile picture, cover photo, “age range”, language, and country. You can make this information more difficult to find by making your profile unsearchable.

  • Go to your privacy settings, which you can find under the general “settings” tab.
  • Where it asks: “Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your Profile?” – click no.
  • Review the settings under “privacy”, but also under “timeline and tagging”- there are many settings that can help keep your information more private, such as requiring approval for photos other people tag you in before they appear on your timeline.
  • It’s probably also a good idea to turn off facial recognition. This type of data renders you easier to identify.

Remember that if law enforcement really wants to, they can get private information about you. However, taking these steps makes it much more difficult to obtain, and that’s a good thing!

2. Second, as Facebook’s law enforcement guidelines outline, law enforcement has a variety of ways to get more information about you, including sending a subpoena, getting a special court order, or getting a traditional warrant.

Using a subpoena, which does not require a judge, law enforcement can get information about “name, length of service, credit card information, email address(es) and a recent login/logout IP address(es), if available.” As you can imagine, that’s already a lot. Where a subpoena is not enough, of course, law enforcement could apply for and get a court order under the Stored Communications Act, or for an ordinary warrant. These methods can allow law enforcement to obtain essentially anything, up to and including private messages and potentially content you have deleted from Facebook but that has not yet been purged from Facebook’s servers.

Before you panic, it’s important to understand that it’s still very unclear how often this happens. As Prandini told the Intercept, “I have not heard of [Homeland Security Investigations] going and getting private information from Facebook.” That being said, you should assume that all that data is available to law enforcement. Although we don’t know how much ICE is currently accessing more private data, please keep in mind: Criminal defense attorneys are very familiar with combing through piles of text messages sent by their clients and used by the prosecution. Assume this can happen with Facebook messages as well.

3. Third, despite rules against creating “fake” profiles, law enforcement has a history of doing just that in order to entrap people – for example, this case of the Drug Enforcement Agency impersonating a user. Following the media storm around this case, Facebook wrote an open letter to the DEA making it clear that such profiles violate Facebook’s terms of service, but this tactic should still be considered a threat- so be cautious when accepting friend requests, and read our answer below about how to avoid infiltration.

How does law enforcement use data and information obtained from Facebook to track and arrest individuals?

It’s fairly simple for law enforcement to correlate various pieces of data to get a full picture of an individual’s movements or location. Documents published in the Intercept (which was not about an immigrant, but did involve ICE) showed how ICE obtained “backend Facebook data revealing a log of when the account was accessed and the IP addresses corresponding to each login,” and correlated that data with Western Union money transfers. Don’t think of your Facebook profile as isolated from the other traditional sources of data law enforcement has, like banking and phone records. What’s more, in recent years, it’s become known that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also using some level of automated analysis of data, but the full extent is unclear.

At a more basic level, ICE continues to use racist policies combined with social media information to target black and brown youth. It’s also important to note that DHS, in its law-enforcement and immigration-process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly available social media. In a 2017 notice, the DHS clarified that “the official record of an individual’s immigration history” includes “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results,” and that this official record was no longer only a paper file but also includes a file in the USCIS Electronic Immigration System.

Lastly, keep in mind that ICE is not working in a vacuum. Depending on where you are, local law enforcement may cooperate with ICE, and most local law enforcement does its own social media tracking as well. Often, this information is shared through various mediums, such as “Fusion centers” or the Homeland Security Information Network database. Fusion centers, in particular, can provide a rich stream of information sharing, as officers located in these federal/state/local information sharing centers have access to the HSIN, the FBI’s e-guardian database, other databases, and often may have local law enforcement officers working directly with federal law enforcement.

If my Facebook is set to private, can law enforcement still find and use my information?

Having your social media private might help prevent people from finding your information online by simply searching for it, but it won’t protect you much if law enforcement is trying to get access to your information. Government officials often make requests for data about Facebook users as part of official investigations. They can request user information, such as name, registration date, IP address, or account content.

Facebook publishes these government requests as part of their transparency report. In the US for instance, from January 2017 to June 2017, Facebook received about 70,000 requests for data and complied with 85% of those requests. In most cases, Facebook is prohibited from notifying affected users because of a non-disclosure order accompanying the government request for data.

So, when the choice is between making your information private, say, where you went to school or which event you attended, it’s a safer choice to simply not share it with the platform.

If my Facebook is private, is it okay for me to tag someone in a video or photo?

It’s best to get consent before revealing information about others, especially in situations where your friends and/or their family members are targets for law enforcement because of their immigration status or any other reason. This includes tagging people in photos or videos. When you tag someone, whether it’s a photo or a post, you extend who can see that based on your friend’s privacy settings. Friends of the person you tagged in the photo or video will be able to view the content. If the person changes their settings later, this could affect previous posts. Furthermore, tagging a photo or video helps Facebook’s complicated facial recognition algorithms catalog faces with more data. You should also consider turning on the Facebook feature that requires approval before tagged images show up on your own timeline. So, ask first for consent first and protect your community.

If I filmed law enforcement in a place I wasn’t supposed to be filming, can I get in trouble for posting the video on social media? Even if it shows law enforcement doing something wrong?

In the United States, you have a First Amendment Constitutional right to film on-duty law enforcement (police, ICE, etc.) in public, regardless of your immigration status. However, if you do have vulnerable immigration status, it’s important to understand the added risks and threats you face when filming or interacting with law enforcement – especially if you’re filming in close proximity to an incident and an officer can claim that you were “obstructing the arrest.”

If you film law enforcement in a nonpublic and legally restricted space where filming is explicitly not allowed (a courthouse, military facility, etc.) and then share the video publicly, it is possible the video could implicate you as the filmer in the underlying offense. If you filmed law enforcement abusing human rights or violating the law, one would hope that prosecutorial discretion would act in your favor and that the officer’s crime would outweigh yours, but your legal risk should still be considered before you decide to post or share your video. Besides the legal implications, you also risk retaliation from law enforcement, internet trolls or other adversaries when you share videos publicly – regardless of whether or not you were within your rights to film the officers. It’s important to consider your safety and remember that you have options before you share content publicly.

Remember that you don’t have to share footage publicly in order for it to make an impact. We always advise consulting a lawyer or legal aid before you share video of human rights abuses in any situation. Perhaps they could use the footage for evidentiary purposes or to support an investigation. Working with a third party such as a newspaper, journalist or advocacy organization to share content publicly instead of sharing the video on your own could also help add a lawyer or protection to your safety.

Regardless of whether you filmed a video of police or ICE in a public space not, it’s in your best interest to pause and think before sharing the footage publicly. Check out this checklist of questions to ask yourself before you share a video.

How can my friends and I protect ourselves from having our social media infiltrated?

Facebook knows a lot about us, from what we like, who our friends are, where we travel to, which events we attend, how we are feeling, to who are family is, just to name a few. That information is personal and tied to our identity, which means that someone can infer a lot about us based on everything we publicly share on the platform. Take a situation where you are dealing with someone who is harassing you online. If that person were to find your Facebook profile, and you have publicly shared your phone number, then that piece of information just becomes added ammunition. On another hand, law enforcement agents have been known to infiltrate social media sites and conduct investigations undercover, meaning that the familiar face you vaguely remember from an event and who later friended you isn’t really who they say they are. Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to help protect your identity on facebook:

  • It’s important to think twice before sharing a photo or video of your friend. Ask yourself if they have consented to have their personal information shared with the public. Same goes for sharing a photo or video of a protest or an event where people’s faces can be identified. Some people prefer to remain private and don’t want visuals of themselves shared online.  
  • You can create separate accounts for your personal identity and your public profile, whether that latter is tied to running a business, activism, or something else. To do so, create a public figure page and use it to share updates, events, and news related to your public identity. That way, you can keep your personal account private to a close circle of friends and family, and not worry about strangers or acquaintances getting access to it to your private information.
  • Even if you don’t separate accounts, it’s a good idea to limit the information you share with Facebook. Here are a few steps you can take to increase the privacy of your account on your profile:
    • You can remove or make your family relationships invisible to the public.
    • For Birthday and Phone Number, you can edit to “only me”
    • For Work and Education, you can edit to “only me” or delete them
  • Moving on to your settings, you can:
    • In the general account settings, under Username, you can change the URL of your Facebook profile to something that is not your full name, making harder for someone to just search for your profile.
    • Under Privacy, you can limit your past posts
    • Under Privacy, you can limit your friends list to make it visible only to yourself, thus restricting someone’s ability to make network connections between you and other people
    • Under Privacy, you can change “Who Can Look Me Up” to friends of friends, and remove the option for someone finding you with email or phone number.
    • Under Privacy, opt out of search engines outside of Facebook linking to your profile.

Keep practicing healthy habits when it comes to sharing your information online. You can often ask yourself: do I trust everyone I’m connected to? Does Facebook really need to know this information about me? Do my contacts consent to me sharing information about them?

An important thing to remember is that security is about collective practice. If you have great security and privacy habits, but your Facebook friend doesn’t, and is tagging you in photos or places, and is sharing information about you online with some weak privacy settings around who can see them, then that would compromise your safety and identity as well.

You are only as strong as your weakest link, and your security is everyone’s security. Reinforce habits together.

For more on WITNESS’ immigration documentation work,  check out our Eyes on ICE series.

And for more digital security resources:



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