Mar 26 2018

Facebook As The Ultimate Surveillance Machine

Whenever someone tells me about the progress humans have made, I remind them that since the beginning of humans, man has been trying to kill his neighbor to take over his backyard. And yes, as Amy likes to regularly remind me, it’s often men doing the killing.

Simultaneously, governments around the world have spent zillions of dollars building surveillance systems since the beginning of – well – humans. Or at least since the beginning of governments.

In 14 years, Facebook has created the most incredible and effective surveillance machine in the history of humankind. And we, the humans, have given the machine much of the data. John Lanchester has the best article on this I’ve read to date titled You Are the Product in the London Review of Books. It’s long – 8674 words – but worth reading every one of them. The magical paragraph is in the middle of the article and follows.

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.”

Jean-Louis Gassée, always the provocateur, is blunt: Mark Zuckerberg Thinks We’re Idiots. It’s another article worth reading, but if you just like pull quotes, the best one shows up early in the article.

“As Facebook’s leader, Zuckerberg resolves to get things straightened out in the future (“it’s my job, right?”) while he delivers a callcenter-style broken record reassurance: “Your privacy is important to us”. Yes, of course, our privacy is important to you; you made billions by surveilling and mining our private lives. One wonders how aware Zuckerberg is of the double entendre.”

For a more balanced, but equally intense view, Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a long post titled The Facebook Brand. It explains, in detail, how easy it was for any developer to get massive amounts of data from the Facebook Graph API between 2010 and 2015 (where Ben suggests that Facebook was willing to give everything away.) If you don’t want to read the article, but are interested in an example of the Facebook Graph Extended Profile Properties,  here it is.

Ben’s conclusion is really important.

“Ultimately, the difference in Google and Facebook’s approaches to the web — and in the case of the latter, to user data — suggest how the duopolists will ultimately be regulated. Google is already facing significant antitrust challenges in the E.U., which is exactly what you would expect from a company in a dominant position in a value chain able to dictate terms to its suppliers. Facebook, meanwhile, has always seemed more immune to antitrust enforcement: its users are its suppliers, so what is there to regulate?

That, though, is the answer: user data. It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.”

In the meantime, Facebook is arguing with Ars Technica about whether or not Facebook scraped call, text message data for years from Android phones. Facebook is pretty insistent that it isn’t. But, given that Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of its ability to influence elections, it’s hard to know who to believe.

In shocking news, Facebook is now under federal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. I’m sure they will get to the bottom of this quickly. I wonder if the NSA is going to have to delete all the Facebook data they’ve slurped up over the years after this is over.


Also published on Medium.