It would be fair to say that Facebook has been having a rough old time of it for the past month, with the news dominated by the Cambridge Analytica data scraping story and Zuckerberg himself getting being grilled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
However, not a single member of that committee challenged Zuck about the use of Facebook for surveillance; although to be fair, he did have to explain to one Senator that running adverts enables Facebook to be run as a free service, so maybe the level of technical knowledge in the room wasn't quite on an equal footing.
Zuckerberg said, "On Facebook, you have control over your information... the information we collect you can choose to have us not collect."
Now, while that might be true for Facebook, it doesn't apply to the companies using the data on the social platform for profit.
Forbes has uncovered one firm, run by former Israeli intelligence officer Shai Arbel, which is using sources including Facebook and YouTube to construct a massive facial recognition database.
The service, Face-Int, was created by surveillance company Terrogence, which was acquired by Israeli vendor Verint in 2017. Both Terrogence and Verint count the US government among their customers.
Terrogence's website describes the product:
‘Over 9 years of web intelligence operations have yielded and continue to yield a massive and growing database of annotated faces and face data…
‘Terrogence actively monitors and collects online profiles and facial images of terrorists, criminals and other individuals believed to pose a threat to aviation security, immigration and national security. The Face-Int database houses the profiles of thousands of suspects harvested from such online sources as YouTube, Facebook and open and closed forums all over the globe. It represents facial extractions from over 35,000 videos and photos retrieved online portraying such activities as terrorist training camps, motivational videos and actual terror attacks.'
The same webpage was online in 2013, Forbes found, suggesting that the number of photos and videos that Face-Int has scanned is now significantly higher.
The privatisation of privacy
Facebook might not be directly to blame for companies taking advantage of its platform, but ties have already been drawn between Terrogence and Cambridge Analytica. Both played on the openness of data on Facebook and other sources to get what they needed, and both failed to communicate with users.
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), pointed out the dangers of intrusive biometric profiling like Face-Int, telling Forbes: "When you contemplate face recognition that's everywhere, we have to think about what that's going to mean for us. If private companies are scraping photos and combining them with personal info in order to make judgements about people - are you a terrorist, or how likely are you to be a shoplifter or anything in between - then it exposes everyone to the risk of being misidentified, or correctly identified and being misjudged."
Data-driven decision making is a great thing, but can be dangerous when it is automated without proper controls. Most face recognition tools, for example, struggle to correctly ID women and people with darker skin tones.
A spokesperson for Facebook said that Face-Int appears to violate several of its policies, including one stating that data taken from the service cannot be used for surveillance. Facebook also disallows accessing or collecting information through automated methods.
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