Global Mass Surveillance And How Facebook’s Private Army Is Militarizing Our Data

March 19, 2019 in News by RBN Staff


Source: Forbes | Kalev Leetaru

Facebook logo. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)GETTY

Last month, Business Insider published an extraordinarily detailed look into the private army protecting Facebook and its founder. While much of the expose revolved around the company’s traditional security measures like armed guards and executive protection details, what stood out was the company’s close relationship with law enforcement and its use of traditional government surveillance technologies from secret cellphone tracking to license plate scanners to the proposed deployment of facial recognition to its global surveillance camera network. What can we learn from the way in which Facebook is in many ways militarizing its two billion users’ data?

One of the most notable aspects of last year’s non-stop deluge of privacy and security-related Facebook news is that despite security breach after security breach in which its two billion users’ data was stolen, harvested or otherwise misappropriated by third parties, the company’s own data has remained largely untouched. Despite seemingly unable to secure the most intimate and private information of its users in any way, when it comes to the company’s data, it has a formidable security apparatus that ensures few leaks.

In other words, when it comes to the safety and security of its users, the company has found itself again and again unable to protect them from harm. When it comes to itself, the company has invested heavily in ensuring it does not suffer similar breaches.

It seems this placement of its own safety over that of its users extends to the physical world as well.

Business Insider’s documentary on Facebook’s physical security practices notes that the company employs, among other technologies, license plate scanners as part of its surveillance camera network and has considered applying facial recognition to its cameras to instantly recognize those entering or moving about its buildings and grounds.

Asked where the company obtains the license plate information of users it wishes to track, a company spokesperson declined to comment. Asked whether Facebook receives license plate information through its relationship with law enforcement and whether it maintains its own databases of license plate information obtained through any means, the company again declined to comment.


The ability of social media companies to stockpile databases of license plate information to use in their own operations is of great concern and raises the question of what else Facebook could do with all of that information.

Recall that Facebook has previously proposed selling facial recognition capabilities to retail stores that would tie the people walking around their storefronts back to their Facebook profiles without their consent.

One could easily imagine Facebook constructing a vast database of license plates that would add a list of all vehicles owned by each of its two billion users. This could in turn be sold as a service to governments or private companies to turn private internet-connected camera networks into realtime surveillance platforms. Coupled with Facebook’s vast facial recognition database, the company could offer a realtime parking lot inventory to a store, along with the identity of each driver and passenger in all of those vehicles and their realtime location within the store, along with all of their interests and an estimate of whether they are a potential shoplifter or a valuable potential customer.

It could then turn around and sell a feed to law enforcement and government security services that provides them the realtime location of every citizen and visitor within their borders as they go about their daily lives. Even those going to great lengths to conceal their location from security services by not carrying any electronic devices would likely eventually be spotted by one of these Facebook-connected cameras.

Again, the company declined to comment about its license plate scanning technology.

Tellingly, when asked whether the company had since deployed facial recognition to any of its security cameras, the company declined to comment. For a company that typically pushes back forcefully on privacy-related rumors, the fact that Facebook did not deny having now deployed facial recognition to its camera networks is a critical reminder of the rights we grant it to our private data.

Given that Facebook already transforms our private photographs into monetizable facial recognition models that it uses to identify images we appear in, it doesn’t take much imagination to foresee the company simply taking those existing models and connecting them to its global network of surveillance cameras. The company’s generous exceptions to its privacy and safety settings allow it to ignore most user preferences when it comes to the safety and security of the platform, opening the possibility that it could build facial recognition models even for those who have explicitly demanded the company not do so, potentially placing the company in conflict with GDPR for its EU users.

Once again, the company declined to comment on where its facial recognition imagery comes from or whether it would commit to not mass harvesting its users’ private imagery to build its global surveillance network.

The company’s cozy relationship with law enforcement also raises serious questions about its commitment to privacy. The kind of mass facial recognition and tracking platforms the company has built for itself are tailor-made for the needs of repressive governments all across the world, suggesting that much like its advertising selectors, its physical surveillance platform will soon be co-opted by governments to outsource their intelligence and repression needs, if it hasn’t already.

Putting this all together, in the end, we are once again reminded that in our rush to livestream our lives and pour our most intimate moments into Facebook’s walled garden, we are signing away the rights to our privacy, our thoughts and even our likenesses to a private company that has the legal right to do whatever it pleases with our information and is under no obligation of any kind to tell us what it does with and to our very lives. Orwell would be proud.