by Kalev Leetaru
Photo illustration of the Facebook logo
(CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)
Earlier this month it came out that among
Facebook's myriad algorithmically
induced advertising categories was an entry for users whom the
platform's data mining systems believed might be interested in
treason against their government...
The label had been
applied to more than 65,000 Russian citizens, placing them at grave
risk should their government discover the label.
Similarly, the platform's
algorithms silently observe its two billion users' actions and
words, estimating which users it believes may be homosexual and
quietly placing a label on their account recording that estimate.
One of the challenges
with the vast automated machine that is Facebook's advertising
engine is that its sheer scale and scope means it could never
possibly be completely subject to human oversight.
Instead, it hums along
in silence, quietly watching the platform's two billion
as Big Brother, silently assigning
labels to them indicating its estimates of everything from their
routine commercial interests to the most sensitive and intimate
elements of their personality, beliefs and medical conditions that
could be used by their governments to manipulate, arrest or execute
Such concerns are unfortunately far from hypothetical.
I can personally attest
that there are many governments across the world that very much
aware of the potential of Facebook's advertising tools for
surveillance and indeed use them actively to track specific
demographics and interests, using the company's built-in reporting
tools to identify geographic areas and demographics to target for
Today much of the governmental use of Facebook's ad targeting tools
revolves around using its publicly accessible targeting and
reporting tools to understand things like which neighborhoods have
the highest density of persons in a particular demographic that also
have a particular interest of concern to the government.
By running large numbers
of parallel campaigns covering all of the permutations of a set of
demographics and interests, governments can even learn which
demographics are most associated with particular interests and which
interests are most strongly correlated with particular demographics.
tools allow neighborhood-level identification of where those
demographics and interests coincide, allowing surveillance resources
to be increased in those areas.
The public availability of Facebook's targeting tools means
intelligence agencies need no court orders to leverage them, foreign
intelligence services can use them to track and surveil on foreign
soil and even local law enforcement agencies can use them with few
The global availability
of Facebook's advertising platform offers a particularly powerful
and inviting tool for intelligence agencies attempting to map out
adversarial nations, allowing them to better understand demographic
and interest correlations and geographic affinities and guide the
allocation of their own ground based resources.
In spite of their incredible power and public availability,
Facebook's ad tools are still a relatively blunt instrument
compared to traditional individual-level surveillance tools.
alluded to earlier this week,
What happens when
countries in which homosexuality is a criminal offense that
can potentially bring the death penalty use Facebook's tools
to target those communities?
Facebook's public advertising tools, they can estimate
popular neighborhoods and hangouts, correlated interests in
those areas and so on, but they can't readily compile a list
of real names and addresses of everyone in their country
that Facebook believes may be homosexual.
homosexuality in some countries is classified as a crime
under their formal legal code, could those countries use a
court order to force Facebook to provide a list of all names
of individuals in their country that its algorithms believe
may be homosexual?
The laws of many
countries would make it difficult for Facebook to attempt to
shield its users from a lawful request for a list of
individuals suspected of committing what is in that country
a serious crime.
those individuals may have no idea that Facebook has identified them
as potentially homosexual.
They may take great care
in all of their communications, friendship connections, likes,
statements, status updates and all other online actions in an
attempt to prevent the government from suspecting them.
unyielding all-watching Eye of Sauron is not easily fooled
and will likely eventually assign them a marketing label indicating
its belief of their sexual preference based on the most nuanced
patterns invisible to the human eye.
While Facebook agreed to remove its 'treason category' due to
its illegality in all countries (left unspoken was its limited
marketing use which mean it likely was generating little revenue), a
company spokesperson stated that the company would not be removing
other categories that could place individuals at grave risk of
arrest or death.
Noting that homosexuality
categories can be used by
LGBTQ advocacy groups to reach
people interested in those topics, the company said that they would
not be restricting their use of homosexuality categories or any of
its other sensitive topics categories even in countries where they
When asked whether the company would at least consider limiting its
application of sensitive categories in countries where they are
illegal, such as not automatically labeling homosexual users against
their will in countries where they could face the death penalty, the
company offered that since marketers wanted to target those
sensitive categories even when they placed users at grave risk of
physical harm or death,
"we'll be keeping
It is remarkable that the
company would not even consider placing the life safety of their
users ahead of its marketing interests and that revenue generation
is prioritized even when it has a very real possibility of leading
to the death of those users.
Such are the ethical and
moral standards of today's Silicon Valley.
This raises the question then of what Facebook would do when
confronted with a formal legal request, such as public court order
or a more secretive National Security Letter or similar, that
ordered the company to hand over the names and IP addresses of all
users that its algorithms believed were interested in certain topics
or belonged to certain demographic groups.
"has Facebook ever
received a request from any government agency worldwide that
asked it to provide a list of user names of accounts that had
specific advertising interest labels associated with them",
...a company spokesperson
replied that the company would provide that information to any
"In response to a
legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena)
if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do
This may include
responding to legal requests from jurisdictions outside of the
United States when we have a good-faith belief that the response
is required by law in that jurisdiction, affects users in that
jurisdiction, and is consistent with internationally recognized
...and pointed to
its data policy.
When asked whether the company had indeed received such requests and
actually provided a list of names in response that its algorithms
believed were interested in those categories, the company let its
answer above stand.
Such a response is truly frightening, as it demonstrates just how
clearly the central role Facebook is increasingly playing as a
tool for law enforcement, intelligence agencies and repressive
regimes to crack down on legitimate dissent or internationally
recognized human rights.
It also raises important
questions about the company's legal exposure if it knowingly assists
a repressive regime track down and execute citizens based on
internationally protected statuses.
Putting this all together, instead of 'bringing the world
together', social media is increasingly helping to 'elevate
the voices tearing it apart', while its international reach,
massive centralized data warehouse and algorithms that can divine
the most sensitive and intimate elements of our lives are likely to
increasingly become a go-to one-stop shop for the world's
intelligence agencies to spy on and influence the world while
governments themselves increasingly leverage their legal powers to
force Facebook to help them hunt down dissent and those
different from themselves.
Welcome to a world
could not have imagined...