Earlier this month it came out that among Facebook’s myriad algorithmically induced advertising categories was an entry for users whom the platform’s data mining systems believed might be interested in treason against their government. The label had been applied to more than 65,000 Russian citizens, placing them at grave risk should their government discover the label. Similarly, the platform’s algorithms silently observe its two billion users’ actions and words, estimating which users it believes may be homosexual and quietly placing a label on their account recording that estimate. What happens when governments begin using these labels to surveil, harass, detain and even execute their citizens based on the labels produced by an American company’s black box algorithms?
One of the challenges with the vast automated machine that is Facebook’s advertising engine is that its sheer scale and scope means it could never possibly be completely subject to human oversight. Instead, it hums along in silence, quietly watching the platform’s two billion users as Big Brother, silently assigning labels to them indicating its estimates of everything from their routine commercial interests to the most sensitive and intimate elements of their personality, beliefs and medical conditions that could be used by their governments to manipulate, arrest or execute them.
Such concerns are unfortunately far from hypothetical. I can personally attest that there are many governments across the world that very much aware of the potential of Facebook’s advertising tools for surveillance and indeed use them actively to track specific demographics and interests, using the company’s built-in reporting tools to identify geographic areas and demographics to target for further surveillance.
Today much of the governmental use of Facebook’s ad targeting tools revolves around using its publicly accessible targeting and reporting tools to understand things like which neighborhoods have the highest density of persons in a particular demographic that also have a particular interest of concern to the government. By running large numbers of parallel campaigns covering all of the permutations of a set of demographics and interests, governments can even learn which demographics are most associated with particular interests and which interests are most strongly correlated with particular demographics. Geographic reporting tools allow neighborhood-level identification of where those demographics and interests coincide, allowing surveillance resources to be increased in those areas.
The public availability of Facebook’s targeting tools means intelligence agencies need no court orders to leverage them, foreign intelligence services can use them to track and surveil on foreign soil and even local law enforcement agencies can use them with few restrictions. The global availability of Facebook’s advertising platform offers a particularly powerful and inviting tool for intelligence agencies attempting to map out adversarial nations, allowing them to better understand demographic and interest correlations and geographic affinities and guide the allocation of their own ground based resources.
In spite of their incredible power and public availability, Facebook’s ad tools are still a relatively blunt instrument compared to traditional individual-level surveillance tools.
As I alluded to earlier this week, what happens when countries in which homosexuality is a criminal offense that can potentially bring the death penalty use Facebook’s tools to target those communities? Using only Facebook’s public advertising tools, they can estimate popular neighborhoods and hangouts, correlated interests in those areas and so on, but they can’t readily compile a list of real names and addresses of everyone in their country that Facebook believes may be homosexual.
Given that homosexuality in some countries is classified as a crime under their formal legal code, could those countries use a court order to force Facebook to provide a list of all names of individuals in their country that its algorithms believe may be homosexual? The laws of many countries would make it difficult for Facebook to attempt to shield its users from a lawful request for a list of individuals suspected of committing what is in that country a serious crime.