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Your Privacy on Facebook ‒ the Tipping Point of All Trouble

Facebook has gained a lot of media attention and expert attention as another rise of critism against the social networks has appeared. The recent comments coming from Russia that the state is planning to block the service sparked a new debate among both users and experts on the reasons why this should or should not happen. This articles explores some of the key issues related to Facebook privacy abuse and its censorship.

Your Privacy and Facebook – Friends or Foes?

Probably the most important factor when it comes to Facebook criticism is how the social network handles our personal data. Privacy issues related to individual cases have fueled the debate over time. The majority of the worry surrounding Facebook is due to the site’s policy of collecting data using different techniques. One of the main criticisms against the company is the use of tracking cookies that are used to monitor with detail the behavior of the users. The Australian security expert Nik Cubriloic discovered a few years ago that Facebook installed cookies that were still active even after the users were logged out of the service. Subsequent media attention caught up quickly which resulted in a fix of the “privacy flaw”. However this did not stop the social network from upholding an aggressive regarding the private data of the site’s users.

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One of the famed changes of the social networks that most long-time users remember happened in June 2012 when Facebook removed all traces of email addresses and added the @facebook.com to the user profiles. The justification of this action on part of the site’s team is that the new setting would give the users the ability to decide if they want to showcase their “real” address on their profiles. However the change was limited to only a selected group of people and did was not met with the expected response. A software bug lead to the @facebook.com being overwritten to the users phone via the mobile bug which caused existing email addresses to be deleted from the system. The service was retired in February 2014.

Facebook has also gained fame by following a set of community guidelines that in some cases do not protect the privacy of the users in the best possible way. They employ a real-name system that prohibits the use of pseudonymes and fake names. This policy was later changed to allow members to provide specifics related to their own “special circumstances” or “unique situation” if they want to continue using such identities. The initial introduction of the changes lead to the reporting and subsequent deletion of accounts that did have their identities verified by Facebook’s team. The fact that the users need to submit personal details (including ID cards) to a site just to continue using it has kept many users away from the service.

The social network was ordered by the Belgian Privacy Commissioner to stop tracking users that attempt to use the service. As Facebook heeded the command of the institution many users became aware as a result of the media attention, that the service has been using the web technology to create detailed accounts of interaction of both users and non-users.

Back in 2009 Facebook changed the default privacy settings to allow a large part of the user’s private information to be shared to other parties. The privacy policy lists several types of data sharing:

  • Sharing On Facebook’s Services ‒ People you share and communicate with, People that see content others share about you, Apps, websites and third-party integrations on or using the social network, Sharing within Facebook companies, new owner.
  • Sharing With Third-Party Partners and Customers ‒ Advertising, Measurement and Analytics Services (Non-Personally Identifiable Information Only) and Vendors, service providers and other partners.

Facebook’s Machine Learning Related to Privacy

The social network is prolific for their use of machine learning and facial recognition. One of the first widely used instances of such technology happened in June 2011 when the service enabled an automatic feature called “Tag Suggestions”. This is a direct result of a research project called “Deep Face” which uses algorithms and technology to compare uploaded photographs to those of the user’s friends and suggests photo tags. This sparked a debate in many countries because the social network introduced this as an opt-out service.

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Several journalists and experts have compared the social network to dystopian technology as the service has been found to employ several machine learning mechanisms to process the input data and present that information to group or the community at large. This practice is evident by the way Facebook collects data about different activities ‒ what posts the users like, music, activities, videos and data from connected apps. This includes game score and other types of interaction.

The machine learning algorithms are employed heavily on the user’s timelines. This is evident from the way Facebook shows the user’s timeline, it picks up data from images and fields and depending on the quantity of interaction with certain users they will be shown more than others. The technology gives users the ability to view content from predominantly people that they interact more with.

Data mining is employed to collect vast information about the users. A few months ago The Australian posted an article detailing how the databases can be sold to third parties. A leaked confidential document prepared by a team at Facebook reveals that the company had offered potential advertisers and marketing agencies to target 6.4 million young users (some of them age 14) with products and services when they were feeling psychologically vulnerable. The social network was able to retrieve information about their current condition by watching out for posts that feature keywords such as “worthless”, “stressed”, “anxious”, “failure” and others. Of course when the story reached the public Facebook issued a public statement arguing that the article was misleading. Still marketing agencies favor the social network as one of the most powerful platforms for issuing targeted advertising.

Facebook Censorship Around the World

While Facebook may be criticized by many citizens, groups and even political parties its censorship or temporary block has been made by several states. And while many users speculate that this is due to privacy or security reasons, the majority of the cases appear to be motivated by political factors.

Iran is one of the countries that have issued a years-long ban to sites like Twitter and Facebook since the 2009 elections in the country. This was due to fears of oppositions movement that might organize themselves online. In September 2013 the block was temporary lifted without notice and continued later on. The country operates an advanced filtering system that is used to block prominent sites. The authorities have since developed their own software and hardware solution that routes all traffic through the state-controlled Telecommunication Company of Iran.

Another regime that restricts Facebook on a national level is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Global Internet in fact is restricted only to selected citizens: graduate students, government institutions and etc. The majority of the country employs a state-owned domestic network known as Kwangmyong (meaning “Light”) which is widespread and available for free use. It features email services, news groups and an internal web search to lookup different sites. Among the listed web services there are bulletin boards, forums and portals that provide an equivalent form of famous international sites.

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China is another nation that has gained notoriety for blocking Facebook. During the years the service was banned by the government for different reasons which resulted in the use of alternative networks by a large part of the Chinese years, namely Renren. Access is currently available through non-local Chinese mobile SIM cards, hotel Wi-Fi access points and other services. Depending on the location the access may be slow or even nonworking. In several regions such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Facebook is not restricted.

Other countries that have been known to temporarily block Facebook include: Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Yesterday The Telegraph reported that Russia has threatened to block access to Facebook if the service does not comply with a new law that requires the website to be hosted in the country. The news came out of the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media which is also known as Roskomnadzor (Роскомнадзор). This is the institution that oversees government control and supervision in the media and communications, the order was due to a law that came in force in September 2015. The legislation was approved by President Putin back in 2014 and other sites have already been blocked.

Facebook Restrictions Placed by Organizations and Institutions

Different organizations and government institutions have been known to restrict access to Facebook as ordered by their own terms of use. A noteworthy case in the USA is the imposed block by Ontario government employees, as well as Federal public servants, MPPs and ministers of the Cabinet. They reported to be unable to access Facebook. Any attempts resulted in a warning message that reads the following: “The Internet website that you have requested has been deemed unacceptable for use for government business purposes”.

Local government institutions such as those in Finland and the United Kingdom impose specific restrictions regarding the use of Facebook in the workplace. The US Marine Corps have imposed similar means to restrict leakage of sensitive information. At the same time hospitals in Finland have been reported to limit the social network’s access citing privacy concerns. Depending on the internal regulations and policies schools and universities may also utilize Facebook bans.

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Facebook Data Use Consequences

The way Facebook handles data leads to permanent data storage even if the user accounts are deleted. User interaction and messages are retained after the user accounts have been terminated and this is evident in groups and pages where users might have interacted with. This allows Facebook to record the data and use it for their own purposes as documented in the privacy policy.

Facebook Connect is a platform operated by the service that allow various actions to be conducted on third-party websites. As the site is used for authentication information about the users and the sites is passed through them. The privacy-invasive cookies keep a record of the users activities across a large number sites for 90 days, even if they are not logged the service. The collected data includes: date, time, URL and IP address. The cookies can also detect whether the site includes Facebook options such as the “Like” button. The information is used to “personalize” the “experience” according to the help section of the social network.

Registered users will find that their private information will become public. At the moment such datasets are considered to be the user’s name, cover photo, profile picture, networks and gender. They can be viewed by anyone without registering on Facebook.

When Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA spying on the public he mentioned that Facebook was among the tech companies that provided information to the agency. This implies that it is very possible that the service might give data to other government institutions of states worldwide upon request.

Users Worldwide Are Concerned for the Future

As Facebook continue to develop machine learning and AI technologies, as well as going further into tightly integrating new products and services into their platform, experts speculate that the privacy issues will continue further. There are several case scenarios that can be explored, all of them are particularly worrisome for end users and privacy activists.

The first proposition is that the company can comply with the regulations set forth by the state institutions which effectively disallows any access restrictions based on the laws and regulations alone. This scenario will provide the social network with the ability to continue gathering information about the users as documented in their terms and conditions.

If the social network does not comply with the laws they can be temporarily or permanently blocked from the nations (in the case of Russia), however a change of policy might still alter this. We see that LinkedIn have moved their hosting into the Russian Federation and their ban is still active however if the overseeing institution decides to change their policies, then the professional network will be available for Russian citizens once again. Some experts speculate that the decision to not move the data to another country is the fact that the USA laws allow for wide range surveillance and trading of private data in comparison to other legislations, for example the EU.

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Another case presents the possibility of Facebook developing another data-invasive and pervasive service then it can be used in conjunction with the social network to combine the collected data into one large database. The social network will then have the opportunity to provide the data to third parties, such as ad networks and marketing agencies, for targeted advertising.

The future is certainly uncertain in terms of privacy protection. Whatever happens with Facebook’s policies and actions will certainly have an immense effect upon a large part of the world’s populations. Millions of people use the service actively and their data is being processed by the company’s machine learning and AI in-house software. We can only speculate how the data will be used in the coming future where the processing speed and capabilities will grow exponentially and will allow for wider consumer concerns.

Martin Beltov

Martin graduated with a degree in Publishing from Sofia University. As a cyber security enthusiast he enjoys writing about the latest threats and mechanisms of intrusion.

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