Is Facebook the new ‘Big Brother’?


When Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria used Facebook to spring her cheating husband of three years, Tony Parker, just before Christmas, she was using social networking to gather intelligence. But she’s not the only one, and some agencies are salivating at the information they’re gathering on citizens across the world

Those who followed the celebrity world were stunned this summer, when Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria filed for divorce from hubby Tony Parker, citing Facebook in papers lodged with the courts. It seems she’d caught the man out exchanging explicit messages with a woman on the social networking site, which has just boasted its 600 millionth sign-up worldwide.

To put that in perspective, that’s enough people using Facebook to account for every man, woman and child in the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and Japan combined. Of course, market penetration in the West isn’t quite that high (yet), so there’s a fair stack of users across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Facebook stats for New Zealand reveal 44% of the total population are now registered on Facebook, and when you consider that most Facebook users are adults, that turns into a majority of New Zealand adults now registered. Women are slightly more likely than men to use social networking, making up 55% of NZ users.

With that level of exposure, you’d be hard pressed within your circle of friends not to find at least one of them (and probably a lot more) are on Facebook. The level of interconnectedness is legendary; everybody knows somebody.

Back in the early 1990s, a story began doing the rounds about “the Kevin Bacon phenomenon” – the strange fact that every Hollywood actor could somehow be linked to Footloose star Kevin Bacon within six degrees of separation, based on movies they’d appeared in. For example, Elvis Presley had appeared in a 1969 movie with Ed Asner, and Asner had two decades later appeared in a movie with Bacon, giving Asner a Bacon-separation of 1, and Elvis a Bacon-separation of 2, even though he and Bacon had never met.

Sociologists have discovered the same thing in public life – that virtually all of us can be linked through our acquaintances and friendships, within six degrees of separation, to anyone else on the planet – even to Kalahari bushmen.

This “interconnectedness” is one of the driving principles that Facebook is designed to exploit, but in doing so has it created a monster? In Eva Longoria’s case, she’s by no means alone: Facebook is now officially cited as an aggravating factor in one in every five divorces. The opportunity to reconnect with old flames or new ones is more than many can resist.

While it can be argued infidelity is as old as the hills, it’s certainly a lot easier now in this era of mass communication, than it was when people were confined to small villages for most of their lives as they were prior to the industrial revolution.

But just as it has made infidelity easier, Facebook has also made it easier to track, and that’s where the Big Brother twist comes in. Just as Longoria was able to detect and trace Parker’s online activities, so could others. In fact, “others” had already stung Longoria in March last year by getting access to some of the actor’s family photos she’d uploaded to a “friends only” section of Facebook.

Some celebs, already accustomed to living life in the public eye, have resigned themselves to a goldfish bowl existence and in fact have embraced it. “It’s personal till it’s not” reads Demi Moore’s definition of “personal information” on her Facebook page, which is probably the right attitude given the number of family snaps of Moore and husband Ashton Kutcher pirated off Facebook and now doing the rounds.

To understand, though, how much your own privacy may be under threat from social networking, it’s worth going back in time a little.

Former Israeli intelligence agent Ari ben-Menashe published a book called ‘Profits of War’ in 1992 that caused a worldwide sensation, because it described for the first time a plan by Israeli spy agency Mossad to create a computer programme capable of monitoring individuals and working out who their circle of friends were. That programme was called PROMIS, and it was picked up not just by Mossad but also the CIA and the NSA in the US.

A commercial version of PROMIS was developed and sold to companies and government entities around the world, including New Zealand and Australia. Unbeknownst to clients, the software had a built in hack that allowed the CIA or other spy agencies to suck out the data on individuals that had been collected by, say, the New Zealand IRD.

“We can use this programme to stamp out terrorism by keeping track of everyone…All we had to do was ‘bug’ the programme when it was sold to our enemies,” wrote ben-Menashe. “It would work like this: using a modem, the spy network would…tap into the computers of such services as the telephone company, the water board, other utility commissions, credit card companies etc. PROMIS would then search for specific information.”

Information, said ben-Menashe, might include phone records that showed who the target associated with, or locations that he regularly visited. “The programme…would have the ability to track the movements of vast numbers of people around the world. Dissidents or citizens who needed to be kept under watch would be hard put to move freely again without Big Brother keeping an eye on their activities.”

That was 1992. When the whistle was blown the intelligence agencies ran for cover, and organisations in New Zealand and elsewhere who had purchased PROMIS ditched it. But the dream of tracking social networks via computer did not go away. Imagine the fun to be had if people voluntarily waived their rights to privacy and uploaded their personal information and friendships online for everyone to see.

In 1998, the CIA ostensibly gave up the fight to lead the world in IT intelligence software.

“The leadership of the CIA made a critical and strategic decision in early 1998. The Agency’s leadership recognized that the CIA did not, and could not, compete for IT innovation and talent with the same speed and agility that those in the commercial marketplace, whose businesses are driven by “Internet time” and profit, could. The CIA’s mission was intelligence collection and analysis, not IT innovation,” reports the CIA’s own website.

Instead of developing software, the CIA set up a company called In-Q-Tel in 1999 to go into venture partnerships with private capital firms to develop and fund promising new technologies that could help the CIA “data mine” for useful intelligence.

“In contrast to the remarkable transformations taking place in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the Agency, like many large Cold War era private sector corporations, felt itself being left behind. It was not connected to the creative forces that underpin the digital economy and, of equal importance, many in Silicon Valley knew little about the Agency’s IT needs. The opportunities and challenges posed by the information revolution to the Agency’s core mission areas of clandestine collection and all-source analysis were growing daily. Moreover, the challenges are not merely from foreign countries but also transnational threats.”

The CIA’s website makes In-Q-Tel’s mission clear:

“In-Q-Tel’s mission is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and pursue research and development (R&D) that produce solutions to some of the most difficult IT problems facing the CIA. To accomplish this, the Corporation will network extensively with those in industry, the venture capital community, academia, and any others who are at the forefront of IT innovation.”

The first CEO of In-Q-Tel was Gilman Louie, and he and his CIA subsidiary were appointed with seven others to the Board of Directors of the National Venture Capital Association of America in 2004. The chairman of the NVCA was James Breyer of Accel Partners, and one of his first tasks that year was to give a young student named Mark Zuckerberg US$13 million in venture capital. What for? Well, in February 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, a new social networking service designed to help fellow students stay in touch with each other.

James Breyer was also chairman of BBN, a Silicon Valley company whose Arpanet technology had helped kick off the internet with the assistance of the US Defence agencies. Joining Breyer at BBN in 2004 were both In-Q-Tel’s Gilman Louie and Dr Anita Jones, a colleague of Gilman Louie’s at In-Q-Tel, and a former advisor to DARPA, or the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In Facebook terms, these CIA and US Defence Department types were just one degree of separation from Facebook itself, and their chairman James Breyer was one of the initial bankrollers of Facebook.

One of DARPA’s projects was “scalable social network analysis”, or SSNA, which researcher Sean McGahan described this way: “The purpose of the SSNA algorithms program is to extend techniques of social network analysis to assist with distinguishing potential terrorist cells from legitimate groups of people … In order to be successful SSNA will require information on the social interactions of the majority of people around the globe. Since the Defense Department cannot easily distinguish between peaceful citizens and terrorists, it will be necessary for them to gather data on innocent civilians as well as on potential terrorists.”

As New Zealand Herald journalist Matt Greenop reported, DARPA and its new Information Awareness Office (whose official US government logo came straight from The X-Files) were planning to strip-mine the internet in search of whether ordinary citizens were somehow, through “friends of friends”, linked to subversive or terrorist organisations.

“The IAO has the stated mission to gather as much information as possible about everyone, in a centralised location, for easy perusal by the United States government, including (though not limited to) internet activity, credit card purchase histories, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, medical records, educational transcripts, driver’s licenses, utility bills, tax returns, and any other available data.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you will note the mission statement is remarkably similar to the former covert PROMIS project. Only this time, US intelligence agencies have been able to do it largely in the open.
But it’s not just US intelligence that might have an interest in knowing the whereabouts and friends-lists of Facebook users. In 2008 Chinese industrialist and People’s Liberation Army frontman Li Ka-shing purchased a US$120 million stake in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

Li is praised in business magazines as an entrepreneur. Indeed, a Christchurch Press editorial said just that when he tried to purchase the Port of Lyttelton a couple of years back:

“There is no need to be starry-eyed about the proposed venture. Li Ka-shing has risen from complete destitution as a refugee who fled the raping and pillaging of China by the Japanese in the 1930s to become a multi-billionaire.

“He did it by being an astute and hard-nosed businessman. He also did it, according to one account in a business journal, by ‘remaining true to his internal moral compass’ and operating with integrity.”

But as Investigate magazine reported back then, things are never quite so Pollyanna simple:

“U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher revealed that the U.S. Bureau of Export Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Rand Corporation had identified Li Ka-shing and Hutchison Whampoa (Li’s primary business) as financing or serving as a conduit for Communist China’s military in order for them to acquire sensitive technologies and other equipment.”

Hutchison has since gone on to become a 50% owner of Vodafone Australia, a part owner of Vector Energy’s Wellington power company and is investing in strategic assets throughout the West.

This past month, the power of social networking to shape geopolitics has been laid bare in the Middle East uprisings. Both Facebook and Google proved crucial in mobilising networks of people instantly to force a revolution.

Coincidence? Who knows. But ultimately, as you enter your next Facebook update or disclose your newest friendship online, spare a thought for the supercomputers somewhere that are storing your details, who you associate with, where you live and what you like. If you are a good little Facebook user you will undoubtedly have entered photos of yourself so that identification and face recognition systems can pick you out of a crowd.

If you’re under the impression that Facebook have improved their privacy settings after last year’s big controversy, well, yes, but only to a point. Facebook’s terms and conditions make it clear that anything posted under the “Everyone” setting (which is the default setting when you first set up your account and details), is available to the whole world – possibly forever if the information is cached or taken by third parties.

If US intelligence agencies have figured out a way to tap into Facebook via the backdoor, as was planned with the original PROMIS software 19 years ago, then no amount of Facebook privacy settings is going to protect you from data mining. And the idea that spooks around the world are not tapping into the world’s largest database of private social networking information, or trying to, is probably naive, given the mission statements of the US defence agency DARPA’s Information Awareness Office and the CIA’s In-Q-Tel.

George Orwell saw a time in his future where the State would force citizens to subject themselves to government monitoring through their TV sets, and history would be re-written by “the Ministry of Truth”. He had no idea a time would really come when people would voluntarily give up what governments had been unable to force them to: the intimate details of their personal lives, social networks and much more, all for the buzz of seeing ourselves on a computer screen watched by 600 million others.

While the focus is confined to finding “terrorists” one could argue that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But ten years from now, with the global political landscape changing and the increasing likelihood of some kind of UN global governance structure to monitor individual travel and carbon use, what will a dossier of your political and social views, and the names of all your friends, be worth to someone, somewhere, if authorities want to shut down dissenting opinions fast?

The truth may be out there, but the question remains: whose truth?