The Most Appalling Spying Machine Ever Invented

Seal of the Office of the Director of National...

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During an interview with a Russian news site, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange describes Facebook as:

the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations and the communications with each other, their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence.”

Facebook, Google, Yahoo – all these major US organizations have built-in interfaces for US intelligence. It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena. They have an interface that they have developed for US intelligence to use.

Now, is it the case that Facebook is actually run by US intelligence? No, it’s not like that. It’s simply that US intelligence is able to bring to bear legal and political pressure on them. And it’s costly for them to hand out records one by one, so they have automated the process. Everyone should understand that when they add their friends to Facebook, they are doing free work for United States intelligence agencies in building this database for them

It is a little surprising that this outburst is so vitriolic, given that WikLeaks itself has a Facebook Page and Facebook refused to shut them down even though other US-based companies such as PayPal severed their connections with WikiLeaks.

Not surprisingly Facebook refutes Assange’s claims and a company spokesman in a written statement to CNet is on record as saying that they only do what’s legal and nothing more. Neither have they automated the process of data retrieval according to their rebuttal.

We don’t respond to pressure, we respond to compulsory legal process. There has never been a time we have been pressured to turn over data [and] we fight every time we believe the legal process is insufficient. The legal standards for compelling a company to turn over data are determined by the laws of the country, and we respect that standard.”

This is not to say that there aren’t companies who haven’t built agency interfaces to cater for government requests for information. A case in point is the telco Sprint whose GPS data has reportedly been used more than 8 million times by the local constabulary.

Clearly in this case there are some major privacy issues about the release of such data without obtaining the owner’s prior permission.

Facebook have an online form for enforcement, law offices and government agencies to use when requesting information.

So is there a grain of truth in what Assange is suggesting? We shall never know if intelligence agencies are able to tap into private data but it is a safe bet that they can and do.

For those that are really concerned by this then the answer is simple, do not engage in social media and if your do, adjust your privacy settings to exclude anything you don’t wish to share.

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About thedigitalconsultant

Roger Smith is a retired international, digital consultant and former British Council Director of Online Operations within the East Asia region.
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