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Facebook Is Just Like the NSA

Last week’s data breach exposed 50 million user accounts. Why is the company hell-bent on collecting our data?

Colin Horgan
Oct 1, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: Glen Carrie/Unsplash

“Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

This’s what Edward Snowden wrote to filmmaker Laura Poitras when he first made contact with her in 2013 regarding the NSA’s tracking and interception systems. Yet, ever since Facebook came under closer public scrutiny following the 2016 election, Snowden’s warning to Poitras reads increasingly like it could have been written about the social platform as well.

We now know the seemingly unlimited reach of Facebook’s data mining operation. We know that it has in the past, and may still, track what you write — and delete — from its site, monitor the websites you visit, where you go (even when you’re offline), record the applications you and your friends install, and more. Somewhere, Facebook may even know how much money you have.

We also know that Facebook can allow users to be targeted with ads using contact information they’ve never even posted on the site. As Kashmir Hill reported for Gizmodo Thursday, Facebook trawls associated accounts and records looking for, say, a phone number besides the one you may have put in your contact information. Facebook then allows advertisers to use that number to target an ad to your News Feed.

In other words, we know about Facebook’s seemingly unlimited reach. As of last week, we also now know the limitations of its safeguards.

On Friday, at least 50 million Facebook users received a security message, alerting them that their account had been compromised. Someone, somewhere, hacked the platform and gained access to tens of millions of accounts. It was the largest security breach in Facebook’s history.

According to Facebook, the hacker(s) exploited a flaw that “allowed them to steal Facebook access tokens… the equivalent of digital keys that keep people logged in to Facebook so they don’t need to re-enter their password every time they use the app.” Already, some users have launched a class action lawsuit against the company, citing the “continuing and absolute disregard” with which Facebook “has chosen to treat the [personal information] of account holders.”

People who once wished to learn what it might be like to surveil themselves as someone else are now actually being surveilled.

The platform’s vulnerability apparently resided somewhere within the code for Facebook’s “View As” feature, which allows users to see their own profile as if they were someone else. In addition to the 50 million accounts with known security issues, Facebook is also notifying 40 million more people “that have been subject to a ‘View As’ lookup in the last year,” that they might be affected.

What does this mean? People who once wished to learn what it might be like to surveil themselves as someone else are now actually being surveilled. This time, by hackers.

It’s a nice summary of how, despite the Snowden revelations, surveillance has become more than merely accepted in the last few years. It’s now something we regularly partake in of ourselves. We’ve become practitioners, rather than protesters.

Last year, in the pages of New York, Max Read wondered whether Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, really had any idea what his platform actually is. “Facebook has grown so big, and become so totalizing, that we can’t really grasp it all at once,” Read wrote. “Like a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize.”

At the time, Zuckerberg had embarked upon a cross-country tour — the latest in a series of ambitious annual side projects he assigns to himself (previous projects include eating meat only from animals he’s “killed himself”) — that led many to speculate about whether he was planning a run at politics. Watching Zuckerberg interact with laypeople in every state, Read tried to come to grips with what he was seeing.

“If Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company, surely [Zuckerberg’s] trip is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere presidential run,” he wrote, before running down a long list of possibilities — including, of course, that “Facebook is a surveillance state” and Zuckerberg is filling the role of a “dictator undertaking a propaganda tour.”

But all Mark Zuckerberg was really doing was extending the purpose of his website. He was gathering information. For all the ways that Facebook might now resemble a tool of a surveillance state — if not a surveillance state itself — this one similarity seems most striking: the shared philosophy of data collection.

Facebook wants to unite the people of Earth — if not ideologically or politically, at least technologically. How…? By finding out as much as possible about you and using that information to connect you to other parts of its network.

As James Bridle writes in New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, the NSA believes that “there is some secret at the heart of the world that, if only it can be known, will make everything better.” To arrive at this secret, it collects as much information as it can, from as many sources as possible, under the impression that, at some point, it will all fit together to make the world clearer and more knowable. Disasters might be averted, terrorist plots foiled. Total knowledge equals total protection.

Facebook believes the same thing, with a twist. As Zuckerberg wrote in his manifesto last year, and highlighted in bold, Facebook wants to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Zuckerberg, and by extension, Facebook, want to unite the people of Earth — if not ideologically or politically, at least technologically.

How does Facebook do that? By finding out as much as possible about you and using that information to connect you to other parts of its network. Facebook appears to believe there is a secret at the heart of the world that, if discovered, could make all of our lives immeasurably better. It collects our data, searching obsessively and trying to solve the riddle. If only Facebook could know everything about everyone, the theory goes, it could unite us all.

Ultimately, whether it’s the NSA or Facebook, the logic of the system dictates that at some point these entities — government and corporate — will know us better than we know ourselves. Only then will some form of a perfect society be achieved. The question now, as in 2013, is whether we believe such a goal is achievable. And whether the tradeoffs — like last week’s monumental data breach — are worth enduring as we wait for that vision to become reality.

One assumes the easy answer is “no.” Recent history might suggest otherwise.

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