Facebook – Social Media or Surveillance Company?

Published By Mia Gardner : 25 Apr 2018 | Last Updated: 24 Dec 2020

Former CIA employee and National Security Agency whistle blower, Edward Snowden, has ripped into social media behemoth, Facebook, in a series of cutting tweets. Snowden stated that Facebook is essentially a surveillance company rebranded as ‘social media’.

This comes in response to the news that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm embroiled in an on going scandal surrounding the election campaign of Donald Trump, had their account suspended by Facebook in March 2018.

In a series of tweets, Snowden criticised the social media platform saying that Facebook made their money by exploiting and selling intimate details about the private lives of millions, and that this went far beyond the scant details users voluntarily post. He said that Facebook were not victims. They were accomplices.

Snowden added that businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies’. The rebranding as ‘social media’ is the most successful deception, since the Department of War became the Department of Defence.

This isn’t the first time Snowden has criticised Facebook. In 2013, Snowden leaked unprecedented details about how the U.S. government accesses social media metadata en masse. He was granted asylum in Russia in 2013 and currently resides at an undisclosed location.

Facebook Suspends Cambridge Analytica

Snowden’s maelstrom of tweets came in response to Facebook’s statement announcing that it Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL had been suspended from the platform and had their account deleted. This in light of revelations that the data analytics firm had not deleted all the data it had harvested from Facebook users on the platform. Facebook maintained that it was not a data breach and tried to play down the incident. However, the social media giant has been left with egg on their faces, as other online entities such as casinos take extensive steps to protect player privacy and not to share confidential details, whereas Facebook seems to have allowed for the opposite, and is now being hounded by everyone from the man on the street to the U.S Congress.

In 2015, Cambridge Analytica purchased data from Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge. Dr Kogan had designed and built an app called “thisisyoourdigitallife” which harvested masses of information on Facebook users and their contacts. Facebook required that all the data that the app had gathered would be destroyed by Cambridge Analytica and Dr Kogan, however the social media company received reports that claimed not all the information had been deleted.

According to Facebook’s statement released on Friday, March 16th, the third-party app was removed when Facebook first learnt of the violation back in 2015. “We removed his app from Facebook and demanded certification from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”

Continuing, the social media company said, “Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims.”

Since the statement was released last month, Facebook had originally estimated that about 50 million users were affected by the data breach, however a revised estimate is closer to 87 million people.

Social Media, Surveillance And The Government

In recent years, Snowden along with a handful of other big names have drawn attention to Silicon Valley companies over their data harvesting and monitoring practices, as well as their increasingly close relationship with the U.S Government. In 2013, media reports revealed that the NSA has backdoor access to all major social media and tech firms, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, AOL, Skye, Apple and YouTube. This is made possible by the agency’s notorious PRISM program, whose existence was made public by Snowden in 2013.

The PRISM program essentially gives the NSA unobstructed access to each company’s servers, going above and beyond the existing laws that state companies must comply with government requests for data. Although the NSA has the ability to pull any sort of data from these companies, it claims that it does not try and collect data at all.

In recent years a number of surveillance companies have been making inroads on all kinds of social media platforms. These spytech vendors and clandestine tech companies offer services that not only deliver spyware via the fake profiles they create but also co-opt and influence social media groups via sockpuppet accounts across a variety of social media platforms. Companies such as Facebook have a fundamental responsibility to protect their users from exploitative surveillance practices such as these.

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