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Why 'Facebook' is More Dangerous than the Government Spying on You

Posted by Maria Xynou at Nov 19, 2013 12:25 PM |
In this article, Maria Xynou looks at state and corporate surveillance in India and analyzes why our "choice" to hand over our personal data can potentially be more harmful than traditional, top-down, state surveillance. Read this article and perhaps reconsider your "choice" to use social networking sites, such as Facebook.
Why 'Facebook' is More Dangerous than the Government Spying on You

by AJC1 on flickr

Do you have a profile on Facebook? Almost every time I ask this question, the answer is ‘yes’. In fact, I think the amount of people who have replied ‘no’ to this question can literally be counted on my right hand. But this is not an article about Facebook per se. It’s more about the ‘Facebooks’ of the world, and of people’s increasing “choice” to hand over their most personal data. More accurate questions are probably:

Would you like the Government to go through your personal diary? If not, then why do you have a profile on Facebook?”

The Indian Surveillance State

Following Snowdens revelations, there’s finally been more talk about surveillance. But what is surveillance?

David Lyon - who directs the Surveillance Studies Centre - defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered”. Surveillance can also be defined as the monitoring of the behaviour, activities or other changing information of individuals or groups of people. However, this definition implies that individuals and/or groups of people are being monitored in a top-down manner, without this being their “choice”. But is that actually the case? To answer this question, let’s have a look at how the Indian government and corporations operating in India spy on us.

State Surveillance

The first things that probably come to mind when thinking about India from a foreigner’s perspective are poverty and corruption. Surveillance appears to be a “Western, elitist issue”, which mainly concerns those who have already solved their main survival problems. In other words, the most mainstream argument I hear in India is that surveillance is not a real issue, especially since the majority of the population in the country lives below the line of poverty and does not even have any Internet access. Interestingly enough though, the other day when I was walking around a slum in Koramangala, I noticed that most people have Airtel satellites...even though they barely have any clean water!

The point though is that surveillance in India is a fact, and the state plays a rather large role in it. In particular, Indian law enforcement agencies follow three steps in ensuring that targeted and mass surveillance is carried out in the country:

1. They create surveillance schemes, such as the Central Monitoring System (CMS), which carry out targeted and/or mass surveillance

2. They create laws, guidelines and license agreements, such as the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008, which mandate targeted and mass surveillance and which require ISP and telecom operators to comply

3. They buy surveillance technologies from companies, such as CCTV cameras and spyware, and use them to carry out targeted and/or mass surveillance

While Indian law enforcement agencies don’t necessarily follow these steps in this precise order, they usually try to create surveillance schemes, legalise them and then buy the gear to carry them out.

In particular, surveillance in India is regulated under five laws: the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, the Indian Post Office Act 1898, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933, section 91 of the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) and the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008. These laws mandate targeted surveillance, but remain silent on the issue of mass surveillance which means that technically it is neither allowed nor prohibited, but remains a grey legal area.

While surveillance laws in India may not mandate mass surveillance, some of their sections are particularly concerning. Section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008 allows for the interception of all information transmitted through a computer resource, while requiring that all users disclose their private encryption keys or face a jail sentence of up to seven years. This appears to be quite bizarre, as individuals can only keep their data private and protect themselves from surveillance through encryption.

Section 44 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008 imposes stiff penalties on anyone who fails to provide requested information to authorities - which kind of reminds us of Orwell’s totalitarian regime in “1984”. Furthermore, section 66A of the same law states that individuals will be punished for sending “offensive messages through communication services”. However, the vagueness of this section raises huge concerns, as it remains unclear what defines an “offensive message” and whether this will have grave implications on the freedom of expression. The arrest of two Indian women last November over a Facebook post reminds us of this.

Laws in India may not mandate mass surveillance, but guidelines and license agreements issued by the Department of Telecommunications do. In particular, the UAS License Agreement regarding the Central Monitoring System (CMS) not only mandates mass surveillance, but also attempts to legalise a mass surveillance scheme which aims to intercept all telecommunications and Internet communications in India. Furthermore, the Department of Telecommunications has issued numerous guidelines and license agreements for ISPs and telecom operators, which require them to not only be “surveillance-friendly”, but to also enable law enforcement agencies to tap into their servers on the grounds of national security. And then, of course, there’s the new National Cyber Security Policy, which mandates surveillance to tackle cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism, cyber-war and cyber-vandalism.

As both a result and prerequisite of these laws, the Indian government has created various surveillance schemes and teams to aid them. In particular, Indias Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) is currently monitoring “any suspicious move on the Internet” in order to checkmate any potential cyber attacks from hackers. While this may be useful for the purpose of preventing and detecting cyber-criminals, it remains unclear how “any suspicious move” is defined and whether that inevitably enables mass surveillance, without individuals’ knowledge or consent.

The Crime and Criminal Tracking and Network & Systems (CCTNS) is the creation of a nationwide networking infrastructure for enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of policing and sharing data among 14,000 police stations across the country. It has been estimated that Rs. 2000 crore has been allocated for the CCTNS project and while it may potentially increase the effectiveness of tackling crime and terrorism, it raises questions around the legality of data sharing and its potential implications on the right to privacy and other human rights - especially if such data sharing results in data being disclosed or shared with unauthorised third parties.

Similarly, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) is an integrated intelligence grid that will link the databases of several departments and ministries of the Government of India so as to collect comprehensive patterns of intelligence that can be readily accessed by intelligence agencies. This was first proposed in the aftermath of the Mumbai 2008 terrorist attacks and while it may potentially aid intelligence agencies in countering crime and terrorism, enforced privacy legislation should be a prerequisite, which would safeguard our data from potential abuse.

However, the most controversial surveillance scheme being implemented in India is probably the Central Monitoring System (CMS). While several states, such as Assam, already have Internet Monitoring Systems in place, the Central Monitoring System appears to raise even graver concerns. In particular, the CMS is a system through which all telecommunications and Internet communications in India will be monitored by Indian authorities. In other words, the CMS will be capable of intercepting our calls and of analyzing our data on social networking sites, while all such data would be retained in a centralised database. Given that India currently lacks privacy legislation, such a system would mostly be unregulated and would pose major threats to our right to privacy and other human rights. Given that data would be centrally stored, the system would create a type of “honeypot” for centralised cyber attacks. Given that the centralised database would have massive volumes of data for literally a billion people, the probability of error in pattern and profile matching would be high - which could potentially result in innocent people being convicted for crimes they did not commit. Nonetheless, mass surveillance through the CMS is currently a reality in India.

And the even bigger question: How can law enforcement agencies mine the data of 1.2 billion people? How do they even carry out surveillance in practice? Well, that’s where surveillance technology companies come in. In fact, the surveillance industry in India is massively expanding - especially in light of its new surveillance schemes which require advanced and sophisticated technology. According to CISIndia Privacy Monitor Map - which is part of ongoing research - Indian law enforcement agencies use CCTV cameras in pretty much every single state in India. The map also shows that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, are being used in most states in India and the DRDOsNetra - which is a lightweight drone, not much bigger than a bird - is particularly noteworthy.

But Indian law enforcement agencies also buy surveillance software and hardware which is aimed at intercepting telecommunications and Internet communications. In particular, ClearTrail Technologies is an Indian company - based in Indore - which equips law enforcement agencies in India and around the world with surveillance software which can probably be compared with the “notorious” FinFisher. So in short, there appears to be a tight collaboration between Indian law enforcement agencies and the surveillance industry, which can be clearly depicted in the ISS surveillance trade shows, otherwise known as “the wiretappers’ ball”.

Corporate Surveillance

When I ask people about corporate surveillance, the answer I usually get is: “Corporations only care about their profit - they don’t do surveillance per se”. And while that may be true, David Lyons definition of surveillance - as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” - may indicate otherwise.

Corporations, like Google, Amazon and Facebook, may not have an agenda for spying per se, but they do collect massive volumes of personal data and, in cases such as PRISM, allow law enforcement to tap into their servers. Once law enforcement agencies get hold of data collected by companies, such as Facebook, they then use data mining software - equipped by various surveillance technology companies - to process and mine the data. And how do companies, like Google and Facebook, make money off our personal data? By selling it to big buyers, such as law enforcement agencies.

So while Facebook and all the ‘Facebooks’ of the world may not profit from surveillance per se, they do profit from collecting our personal data and selling it to third parties, which include law enforcement agencies. And David Lyon argues that surveillance involves the collection of personal data - which corporations, like Facebook, do - for the purpose of influencing and managing individuals. While this last point can probably be widely debated on, it is clear that corporations share their collected data with third parties, which ultimately leads to the influence or managing of individuals - directly or indirectly. In other words, the collection of personal data, in combination with its disclosure to third parties, is surveillance. So when we think about companies, like Google or Facebook, we should not just think of businesses interested in their profit - but also of spying agencies. After all, if the product is free, you are the product.

Now if we look at online corporations more closely, we can probably identify three categories:

1. Websites through which we buy products and hand over our personal details - e.g. Amazon

2. Websites through which we use services and hand over our personal details - e.g. flight ticket

3. Websites through which we communicate and hand over our personal details - e.g. Facebook

And why could the above be considered “spying” at all? Because such corporations collect massive volumes of personal data and subsequently:

- Disclose such data to law enforcement agencies

- Allow law enforcement agencies to tap into their servers

- Sell such data to “third parties”

What’s notable about so-called corporate surveillance is that, in all cases, there is a mutual, key element: we consent to the handing over of our personal information. We are not forced to hand over our personal data when buying a book online, booking a flight ticket or using Facebook. Instead, we “choose” to hand over our personal data in exchange for a product or service. Now what significantly differentiates state surveillance to corporate surveillance is the factor of “choice”. While we may choose to hand over our most personal details to large online corporations, such as Google and Facebook, we do not have a choice when the government monitors our communications, collects and stores our personal data.

State Surveillance vs. Corporate Surveillance

Both Indian law enforcement agencies and corporations collect massive volumes of personal data. In fact, it is probably noteworthy to mention that Facebook, in particular, collects 20 times more data per day than the NSA in total. In addition, Facebook has claimed that it has received more demands from the US government for information about its users than from all other countries combined. In this sense, the corporate collection of personal data can potentially be more harmful than government surveillance, especially when law enforcement agencies are tapping into the servers of companies like Facebook. After all, the Indian government and all other governments would have very little data to analyse if it weren’t for such corporations.

Surveillance is not just about “spying” or about “watching people” - it’s about much much more. Observing people’s behaviour only really becomes harmful when the data observed is collected, retained, analysed, shared and disclosed to unauthorised third parties. In other words, surveillance is meaningful to examine because it involves the analysis of data, which in turn involves pattern matching and profiling, which can potentially have actual, real-world implications - good or bad. But such analysis cannot be possible without having access to large volumes of data - most of which belong to large corporations, like Facebook. The question, though, is: How do corporations collect such large volumes of personal data, which they subsequently share with law enforcement agencies? Simple: Because we “choose” to hand over our data!

Three years ago, when I was doing research on young people’s perspective of Facebook, all of the interviewees replied that they feel that they are in control of their personal data, because they “choose” what they share online. While this may appear to be a valid point, the “choice” factor can widely be debated on. There are many reasons why people “choose” to hand over their personal data, whether to buy a product, use a service, to communicate with peers or because they feel socially pressured into using social networking sites. Nonetheless, it all really comes down to one main reason: convenience. Today, in most cases, the reason why we hand over our personal data online in exchange for products or services is because it is simply more convenient to do so. And while that is understandable, at the same time we are exposing our data (and ultimately our lives) in the name of convenience.

The irony in all of this is that, while many people reacted to Snowdens revelations on NSA dragnet surveillance, most of these people probably have profiles on Facebook. Secret, warrantless government surveillance is undeniably intrusive, but in the end of the day, our profiles on Facebook - and on all the ‘Facebooks’ of the world - is what enabled it to begin with. In other words, if we didn’t choose to give up our personal data - especially without really knowing how it would be handled - large databases would not exist and the NSA - and all the ‘NSAs’ of the world - would have had a harder time gathering and analysing data.

In short, the main difference between state and corporate surveillance is that the first is imposed in a top-down manner by authorities, while the second is a result of our “choice” to give up our data. While many may argue that it’s worse to have control imposed on you, I strongly disagree. When control and surveillance are imposed on us in a top-down manner, it’s likely that we will perceive this - sooner or later - as a direct threat to our human rights, which means that it’s likely that we will resist to it at some point. People usually react to what they perceive as a direct threat, whereas they rarely react to what does not directly affect them. For example, one may perceive murder or suicide as a direct threat due the immediateness of its effect, whereas smoking may not be seen as an equally direct threat, because its consequences are indirect and can usually be seen in the long term. It’s somehow like that with surveillance.

University students have protested on the streets against the installation of CCTV cameras, but how many of them have profiles on social networking sites, such as Facebook? People may react to the installation of CCTV cameras, because it may appear as a direct threat to their right to privacy. However, the irony is that the real danger does not necessarily lie within some CCTV cameras, but rather within the profile of each person on a major commercial social networking site. At very best, a CCTV camera will capture some images of us and through that, track our location and possibly our acquaintances. What type of data is captured through a simple, “harmless” Facebook profile? The following probably only includes a tiny percentage of what is actually captured:

- Personal photos

- Biometrics (possibly through photos)

- Family members

- Friends and acquaintances

- Habits, hobbies and interests

- Location (through IP address)

- Places visited

- Economic standing (based on pictures, comments, etc.)

- Educational background

- Ideas and opinions (which may be political, religious, etc.)

- Activities

- Affiliations

The above list could potentially go on and on, probably depending on how much - or what type - of data is disclosed by the individual. The interesting element to this is that we can never really know how much data we are disclosing, even if we think we control it. While an individual may argue that he/she chooses to disclose an x amount of data, while retaining the rest, that individual may actually be disclosing a 10x amount of data. This may be the case because usually every bit of data hides lots of other bits of data, that we may not be aware of. It all really comes down to who is looking at our data, when and why.

For example, (fictional) Priya may choose to share on her Facebook profile (through photos, comments, or any other type of data) that she is female, Indian, a Harvard graduate and that her favourite book is Anarchism and other Essays by Emma Goldman. At first glance, nothing appears to be “wrong” with what Priya is revealing and in fact, she appears to care about her privacy by not revealing “the most intimate details” of her life. Moreover, one could argue that there is absolutely nothing “incriminating” about her data and that, on the contrary, it just reflects that she is a “shiny star” from Harvard. However, I am not sure if a data analyst would be restricted to this data and if data analysis would show the same “sparkly” image.

In theory, the fact that Priya is an Indian who attended Harvard reveals another bit of information, that Priya did not choose to share: her economic standing. Given that the majority of Indians live below the line of poverty, there is a big probability that Priya belongs to India’s middle class - if not elite. Priya may not have intentionally shared this information, but it was indirectly revealed through the bits of data that she did reveal: female Indian and Harvard graduate. And while there may not be anything “incriminating” about the fact that she has a good economic standing, in India this usually means that there’s also some strong political affiliation. That brings us to her other bit of information, that her favourite author is a feminist, anarchist. While that may be viewed as indifferent information, it may be crucial depending on the specific political actors in the country she’s in and on the general political situation. If a data analyst were to map the data that Priya chose to share, along with all her friends and acquaintances that she inevitably has through Facebook, that data analyst could probably tell a story about her. And the concerning part is that that story may or may not be true. But that doesn’t really matter.

Today, governments don’t judge us and take decisions based on our version of our data, but based on what our data says about us. And perhaps, under certain political, social and economic circumstances, our “harmless” data could be more incriminating than what we think. While an individual may express strong political views within a democratic regime, if that political system were to change in the future and to become authoritarian, that individual would possibly be suspicious in the eyes of the government - to say the least. This is where data retention plays a significant role.

Most companies retain data indefinitely or for a long period of time, which means that future, potentially less-democratic governments may have access to it. And the worst part is that we can never really know what data is being held about us, because within data analysis, every bit of data may potentially entails various other bits of data that we are not even aware of. So, when we “choose” to hand over our data, we don’t necessarily know what or how much we are choosing to disclose. Thus, this is why I agree with Bruce Schneier’s argument that people have an illusionary sense of control over their personal data.

Social network analysis software is specifically designed to mine huge volumes of data that is collected through social networking sites, such as Facebook. Such software is specifically designed to profile individuals, to create “trees of communication” around them and to match patterns. In other words, this software tells a story about each and every one of us, based on our activities, interests, acquaintances, and all other data. And as mentioned before, such a story may or may not be true.

In data mining, behavioural statistics are being used to analyse our data and to predict how we are likely to behave. When applied to national databases, this may potentially amount to predicting how masses or groups within the public are likely to behave and to subsequently control them. If a data analyst can predict an individual’s future behaviour - with some probability - based on that individuals’ data, the same could potentially occur on a mass, public level. As such, the danger within surveillance - especially corporate surveillance through which we voluntarily disclose massive amounts of data about ourselves - is that it appears to come down to public control.

According to security expert Bruce Schneier, data today is a byproduct of the Information Society. Unlike an Orwellian totalitarian state where surveillance is imposed in a top-down manner, surveillance today appears to widely exist because we indirectly choose and enable it (by handing over our data to online companies), rather than it being imposed on us in a solely top-down manner. However, contemporary surveillance may potentially be far worse than that described in Orwell’s “1984”, because surveillance is publicly perceived to be an indirect threat - if considered to be a threat at all. It is more likely that people will resist a direct threat, than an indirect threat, which means that the possibility of mass violations of human rights as a result of surveillance is real.

Hannah Arendt argued that a main prerequisite and component of totalitarian power is support by the masses. Today, surveillance appears to be socially integrated within societies which indicates that contemporary power fueled by surveillance has mass support. While the argument that surveillance is being socially integrated can potentially be widely debated on and requires an entire in depth research of its own, few simple facts might be adequate to prove it at this stage. Firstly, CCTV cameras are installed in most countries, yet there has been very little resistance - on the contrary, there appears to be a type of universal acceptance on the grounds of security. Secondly, different types of spy products exist in the market - such as Spy Coca Cola cans - which can be purchased by anyone online. Thirdly, countries all over the world carry out controversial surveillance schemes - such as the Central Monitoring System in India - yet public resistance to such projects is limited. And while one may argue that the above cases don’t necessarily prove that surveillance is being socially integrated, it would be interesting to look at a fourth fact: most people who have Internet access choose to share their personal data through the use of social networking sites.

Reality shows, such as Big Brother, which broadcast the surveillance of people’s lives and present it as a form of entertainment - when actually, I think it should be worrisome - appear to enable the social integration of surveillance. The very fact that we all probably - or, hopefully - know that Facebook can share our personal data with unauthorised third parties and - now, after the Snowden revelations - that governments can tap into Facebook’s servers, should be enough to convince us to delete our profiles. Yet, why do we still all have Facebook profiles? Perhaps because surveillance is socially integrated and perhaps because it is just convenient to be on Facebook. But that doesn’t change the fact that surveillance can potentially be a threat to our human rights. It just means that we perceive surveillance as an indirect threat and that we are unlikely to react to it.

In the long term, what does this mean? Well, it seems like we will probably be more acceptive towards more authoritarian power, that we will be used to the idea of censoring our own thoughts and actions (in the fear of getting caught by the CCTV camera on the street or the spyware which may or may not be implanted in our laptop) and that ultimately, we will be less politically active and more reluctant to challenge the authority.

What’s particularly interesting though about surveillance today is that it is fueled and enabled through our freedom of speech and general Internet freedom. If we didn’t have any Internet freedom - or as much as we do - we would have disclosed less personal data and thus surveillance would probably have been more restricted. The more Internet freedom we have, the more personal data we will disclose on Facebook - and on all the ‘Facebooks’ of the world - and the more data will potentially be available to mine, analyse, share and generally incorporate in the surveillance regime. So in this sense, Internet freedom appears to be a type of prerequisite of surveillance, as contradictory and ironic as it may seem. No wonder why the Chinese government has gone the extra mile in creating the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter - it’s probably no coincidence.

While we may blame governments for establishing surveillance schemes, ISP and TSP operators for complying with governments’ license agreements which often mandate that they create backdoors for spying on us and security companies for creating the surveillance gear in the first place, in the end of the day, we are all equally a part of this mess. If we didn’t choose to hand over our personal data to begin with, none of the above would have been possible.

The real danger in the Digital Age is not necessarily surveillance per se, but our choice to voluntarily disclose our personal data.