Law in the Internet Society

Facebook: Big Brother is Watching

-- By MatthewGriffinCashia - 11 Nov 2012

“Big Brother is watching you.” This quote from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four ("1984") novel strikes fear into the hearts and minds of readers. In 1984, Orwell describes a society where everyone is under complete surveillance by a totalitarian state. Readers of Orwell’s novel were provided a portrayal of the dangers that this constant monitoring of citizens by a government entity can pose. In fact, just last year Justice Breyer referenced this novel when questioning the validity of the government’s argument that it should be able to use GPS tracking of U.S. citizens without seeking a warrant.

Though many comprehend the dangers that government monitoring can pose, scholars and individuals today fail to see that these same dangers and risks will be imposed when such monitoring is engaged in by a private entity. Specifically, the data aggregation and storage engaged in by Facebook, and other entities like it, can and will inflict the same risks to the population. To support this statement, let us first begin by examining Facebook's operations. That is, who holds its data, who sells it, who reprocesses it, and in what manner these activities are performed.

Facebook learns about you not just from your own activity on Facebook, but also from information others share about you. Though Facebook knows what pages you view, what links you click, among other factors, a more troubling aspect of Facebook is that it is able to determine your location. With the increased use of Facebook on mobile devices, this means that not only does Facebook know everything you choose to share and everything your “friends” share about you, it also knows where you are almost every waking (and un-waking) minute. Highlighting Facebook’s grasp on your life, it is even able to scan the faces of people in posted pictures and compare the faces with its data to determine who is in the picture. Though Facebook states the purpose of this technology is simply to suggest that the individual innocently tag you in the picture, the combination of Facebook’s capabilities with its access to your information makes you wonder "who could be watching."

Facebook uses the information it compiles to further a number of activities, including those in relation to advertising and other revenue generating operations. And though Facebook acknowledges that the user owns all of the information it receives about you, it need only comply with one of the following rules in order to share it: (1) receive your permission, (2) give you notice, or (3) remove personally identifying information. Regardless, Facebook states that it provides your information to a number of vendors who must agree to use your information only in a manner consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy. Nonetheless, concerns arise as to the oversight of these third parties, as well as the security and technological protection afforded by these parties.

So what implications does this series of events have for you, the user? First, let’s start with some examples that we know of. Facebook is currently using scanning software that monitors users’ chats for criminal activity and notifies police if any suspicious behavior is detected. Additionally, Facebook has also complied with subpoenas to provide data on users’ wall posts, photos, and login/IP data (such data can provide the location of a user). Other examples exist. But you may ask of what concern is this to me? I am not a criminal. In fact, many may view this aspect as appealing, since it merely seeks to reduce harm to individuals through criminal or otherwise undesirable acts.

Though arguable whether this assistance to government entities by Facebook is desirable, or if it makes Facebook a vigilante increasing danger rather than reducing it, a more pressing concern is not what we know Facebook can do or does, but rather what Facebook represents. That is, can this monitoring of individuals' daily lives ever be used in a manner reminiscent of 1984?

The answer seems clearly to be in the affirmative. Not only can Facebook track your location, it can do so without a warrant. Not only can Facebook know everything about you (that you choose to share), it can obtain this information easily as it is freely provided to it by its user base. Not only can Facebook begin studying you now, it can also use its information to track you for so long as you have been a user, as all of its information is typically stored until an account is deleted. These capabilities make Facebook a dangerous entity, regardless of whether or not Facebook chooses to share the information with a government, either as a result of its own acts or through theft of its information by hackers or other third parties.

Though clear that Facebook represents an opportunity for abuse of individuals' right to privacy, it must be noted that Facebook is not unique. Many other companies, such as Google, pose a threat. Additionally, the threat is not limited to internet based companies. For example, Microsoft's Kinect, which is a motion capturing camera used by individuals in conjunction with the X-Box 360, allows Microsoft to view your activity in your own home (reminiscent of the cameras placed in each citizens' home in 1984). Microsoft subsequently sells that data, albeit only in numerical, and not video, form, to third parties, most of whom are advertisers.

Skeptics argue that the odds of such privacy abuses are low, but they are overlooking the gravity of the situation if such concerns were to become a reality. The correct inquiry is not just an examination into the abuses that monitoring has caused, but rather we must examine if the risks posed by such monitoring are so great as to make the monitoring itself unjustifiable. For the reasons discussed above, I believe the harm to outweigh the benefit, and I urge readers to reflect upon the risks and dangers that Facebook poses not just to themselves, but to society as a whole. Look out my friends, “Big Brother could be watching.”


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r7 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:21 - EbenMoglen
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