“Social media sites aren’t a threat to national security; hostile foreign powers are. Social media sites are just a communication medium,” said a user on-line echoing what many of us are thinking about the recent kerfuffle over Facebook and its breaches of citizen privacy. So what is the big deal if Facebook knows your cat’s name and where you like to eat?
The statement quoted above is absolutely untrue. Facebook is not just a communication medium but a platform to collect data, and has been from the start. In 2013, government agencies around the world demanded access to the information of over 38,000 Facebook users in the first half of this year, and more than half the orders came from the United States. Even five years ago Facebook was facing intense scrutiny following revelations about co-operation with the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of US and foreign citizens. While Facebook under US law may have not been able to refuse such requests, the information being collected from us is in the hands of external agencies and governments. While many governments do this for purposes of national security, such searches of online activity can very easy turn into witch-hunts for dissenters and minority activists.
In Europe Facebook is currently being sued for aiding US mass surveillance of European citizens. Facebook signs up all non-American users through the Facebook Ireland subsidiary. It then transfers all data to the US for processing. Because the company is bound by US laws, it also allows the NSA and other agencies to process much of this data through various national security programs. Bet you didn’t read that in the complicated terms and conditions you consented to when you signed up for a Facebook account.
Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg faced two days of grilling before US politicians this month over concerns of how the company deals with people’s data. During Zuckerberg’s testimony he claimed to be ignorant of what are known as “shadow profiles”. Imagine you join Facebook and connect it to your phonebook to connect to your other friends who have accounts. Facebook takes the phone contacts you give it, and for people who may not be on Facebook yet, it creates what have been called shadow profiles. Your information is already thus with Facebook, even if you never signed up. Similarly, through the same data, Facebook suggests other profiles to you based on what it finds in your friends networks. It makes a shadow connection, and you then click on it and confirm it. Such a process infinitely repeated will end up making better connections. Imagine using such a process to find activist networks, dissenters, or certain groups and that process being shared with agencies like the NSA. While you and I feel that there our data is not worth much even if it is being surveilled, the data we provide is giving agencies information about who we are connected to in the non-digital world. Searches through the data can help find criminals, yes, but it also puts activists, freedom fighters and dissenters in danger, even if they choose to remain offline.
But remaining offline may not be a matter of choice anymore. Any social cause or business today cannot find support and audiences without an online presence. Facebook has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. The platform changed the way we consent to our data being online and put the bar very very low for what is required from a social media company to put in front of a user wanting to sign up. The way information is presented to us when we sign up to digital accounts is in long scroll of script that is in tiny font, and we have no idea of how to read and decipher the legal jargon. Facebook was a trailblazer at the time of its birth and set a terrible precedent for gaining online consent. While individual users can be blamed for having consented to something they did not understand, there are legal requirements for making users understand the product they are buying and present that information in a legible fashion. Because this was the Internet and twenty years ago laws didn’t exist to deal with this new space, a legal framework to protect citizens was never created.
Facebook and other social media apps are not just about posting an aesthetically pleasing photo of your morning coffee and have never been. It is about understating who you are, how you’re going to vote, who you’re connected to and what their politics is. When a massive pile of data exists that has intricate information about our lives we would be naïve to believe that it will not be used in ways we have not consented to.
And thus a Cambridge University professor made a personality test app (called thisisyourdigitallife) on Facebook’s platform with around 10,000 users. His company signed a data-licensing contract with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica in 2014 and supplied it with psychological profiles linked to US voters. Over the summer his app collected data from around 270,000 Facebook users and harvested personal information on as many as 87 million people — the vast majority of whom would have not known or consented to data being passed on to the firm. Cambridge Analytica built a software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box in the US elections- a software that could profile individual voters to target them with personalised political advertisements. Facebook expects its user data to be harvested and has no checks in place to regulate such collections.
This is the new world we are living in where social media is the new tool for mind control and always saw it coming. Wars and elections are won not just with guns and tanks but with good intelligence and in the last ten years it has become much more easier, for the US at the least, to get this information. Other governments are trying the same, striking deals to allow Facebook into their countries so longs as the data can be shared.
I would like to end this article with how you can protect yourself and make sure your data is not misused, but I have no idea how the Facebook genie can be crammed back in to its lamp. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are so embedded in our lives that if this article is not posted on Facebook, not many people will read it at all. But it is high time that we start posting less, and paying more attention to what’s not posted to Facebook or Instagram. The more importance is given to these online platforms, the more powerful and abusive they become.
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.