Jul 2008

Paranoid facebook crazy talk

Over on a web forum I visit occasionally, we’ve been discussing the ‘Facebook’ website / social engineering experiment. And I think I may have gotten a bit ranty to be honest. Given that this is a more appropriate forum for such rantiness, I figured I’d reproduce my “summary position” here.

Even without following those discussions, it’ll come as no surprise to you that I’m firmly in the anti-Facebook camp. And when I say “firmly”, I mean in the sense that they’re having to build me a special camp in the next field… even further from the pro-Facebook camp than the regular anti-Facebook camp.

A couple of days ago, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made a speech about the company’s plans for the future. It contains an interesting statement. And by “interesting”, I mean “fucking terrifying”.

But before I get onto that, let me recap the main pre-existing arguments for never visiting the facebook site ever again.

They fall into three broad categories.

Firstly, the question of what happens to your information once it gets uploaded to Facebook is a very murky one. They certainly never explicitly claim copyright or ownership of your information, but they do claim all manner of usage rights that amount to almost the same thing in practice, even if not by legal definition. Within this same point is the fact that Facebook made it impossible to delete your account up until recently (when bad publicity forced them to change policy). They still make it difficult (you can’t delete your info, you ask them by email to do it for you) and — vitally — given that they are not obliged to notify you when they sell your data to a third party, you have no idea whether or not it’s already been flogged to UltraMegaCorp by the time they get round to deleting it.

And in practice, it almost certainly already has. Because Facebook have an ongoing relationship with numerous corporations to provide them with user data on a regular basis. These include Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. Amongst others.

Secondly, the political and philosophical problems posed by any large centralised database are, at the very least, worthy of cautious consideration. A consideration that few have given it. Mostly because it’s “voluntary”, not because people are unable to consider these things. When the government propose it and talk about it being mandatory, then people rightfully question the decision.

Thing is, the same problems that exist with a mandatory database also exist with a voluntary one if everyone volunteers.

These kinds of databases are an absolute nightmare from a social justice and civil-liberties standpoint. They encourage an uncomfortable power/control relationship between those who control the data and those who provide it. While on the one hand, the data will allow the database owner to track and identify broad trends within the data-set, it will also allow them to identify mechanisms to manipulate those trends, and the interactive nature of the Facebook website may even provide the mechanisms by which such controls are put in place.

“Is control controlled by it’s need to control?” as Burroughs perceptively asked. And yes, it is. But control still tends to come out better in its relationships with those it controls.

If you get me.

And this is problematic even if control is benign. Even if the guy at the top is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Even if he’s in charge, the risks of him screwing things up are just too great.

Which brings me onto Number 3. It’s very much linked to the second argument, but deserves a bold intro of its own.

Thirdly, it’s not James Stewart running this thing. It’s the fucking CIA!

And no. That’s not a kooky conspiracy theory. Check it out for yourself. There’s been articles written on the subject in the mainstream media, and Facebook haven’t argued with any of them to the best of my knowledge (which I feel certain they would do if they were nonsense). One of the big finance guys behind Facebook is a board member for In-Q-Tel.

In the words of Tom Hodgkinson’s Guardian article

In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA.

I’d rather not link directly to their website, by the way. Yes I am that paranoid. The strapline for In-Q-Tel dot com?

In-Q-Tel identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community.

Ohhhhhhkaaaaaay. I mean honestly. If you’re not going to be paranoid about those people, who are you going to be paranoid about? Eh?

Think about that for a second. I’m not saying that Facebook is the CIA, by the way. Merely that they are part-funded by a guy who kind of works for the CIA. So I think you’ll agree, despite their claims to the contrary, the idea that the CIA don’t have open access to this data, and aren’t analysing it for some reason is, oddly enough, the far-fetched one in this particular instance.

Weird, huh?

I have this image of the CIA opening up a website and asking people to volunteer as much personal information as possible. And of people signing up in their droves. 90 million people at last count. And I say to myself, “don’t be silly Jim, that image is too far-fetched. Even Philip K. Dick would have rejected it as too implausible for a short story”.

People, willingly donating a ton of data (that’s imperial, not metric by the way, we’re talking a lot of data) about themselves to the C.I. fricking A. For them to make shitloads of money with by selling it to Coca fricking Cola. Money to fund Eris-knowns-what, but I doubt it’s cat fricking sanctuaries. I mean these people will be classified as a terrorist organisation by future historians! Don’t be willingly surrendering your life history, personal philosophy, favourite books, music, films to them. Don’t tell them who your friends are, and where you like to hang out and what medication you’re on and what mood you’re in. Don’t open yourself up to these people! And don’t be filling in their silly little tests.

– What answer did you choose for question 6? “C” huh? Y’know only 8% of respondents chose “C”? Funny that… …

What do you mean: “funny that… …”?

– “Ohhhh… Nothing.”

Because they ain’t just making money off your data, they’re giving it to the folks downstairs in psy-ops. And they’ve been cooking up some deeply strange stuff to do with it.

And look, when I say “these people”, they’re probably nice enough, y’know? Treat their friends and family well, and give to charity regularly. But they’re on the wrong mission. And that’s what’s important here.

It’s hardly a coincidence, therefore, that Peter Thiel (the power behind the throne at Facebook) should be a self-described neoconservative activist who espouses a philosophy that can be accurately summarised as

… trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls “nature”, and install a virtual world in its place.

No. No. No! You don’t want to be helping people like him (a) get richer, or (b) do anything at all that he wants to do.

Right? When the nutter down the road starts ranting about destroying the real world and creating a new one that he controls… you feel a bit sad for him and hope he’s feeling better soon. When a billionaire with CIA connections starts expressing those thoughts out loud… you hope you’ll not be the only one at the barricades come the day.

Anyways, that’s my Facebook rant. Sorry it went on so long, but it’s always good to get that kind of thing off your chest.

(and to those who say, ‘But I don’t give my real details’, I would suggest that doesn’t actually invalidate most of the above… even assuming they ain’t logging your IP address. Which, let’s face it, they probably are. If the people behind Facebook asked you to help them out with this social engineering experiment they’re running, would you really want to take part even under condition of anonymity? Really?)

Anyways, the recent development that sparked this little outburst is the news that the CEO of Facebook (the chap on the throne, situated in front of Peter Thiel) gave a recent speech in which he outlined the next steps for the company. It included the line

I really want to see us build a product that allows you to really feel a person and understand what’s really going on with them and feel present with them

Is it just me that doesn’t want those people to have that kind of product?

UPDATE 3:30pm: As pointed out in the comments below, and upon re-reading The Guardian article, it does seem like I may have misinterpreted the financing of Facebook. Although a director of In-Q-Tel is a major advisor to Facebook, there’s no evidence provided that Facebook is actively funded by them. So it may well be that they are not benefitting financially from the company. I stress “may”, because I still feel that many of the connections between the US intelligence community and Facebook will be — almost by definition — clandestine. The CIA, like all national secret services, is not an organisation known for conducting its business in public. Even if they are not direct investors in the corporation, I believe they will still benefit financially, as well as in other ways, from having access to the information provided by Facebook users. Thanks to Michael, in the comments, for highlighting the potential inaccuracy.

I’ve already linked to it above. But I want to make it clear that while I’ve read a few things on this, most of the research was done for me by Tom Hodgkinson of The Guardian earlier this year. His article is the real eye-opener. This is a pointer towards it as much as it is anything else.

Posted in: Opinion