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How many 'likes' does it take to build a dystopia? We're about to find out.

We cannot be dependent on Facebook’s benevolence for protection from government surveillance.
Image: A Facebook user logs into account
Social, connected — and under surveillance?Jason Alden / Bloomberg via Getty file

Collect the data and they will come. They, in the case of Facebook and other social media sites, being mainly advertisers. Oh, and also the government. Most social media sites are in the business of collecting data on its users to make money, but Facebook’s market dominance and the amount and type of data the company is able to collect puts it on another level altogether. What are we giving up when we sign into our social media accounts?

Once, social media sites like Facebook were largely seen as supporting democratic institutions. These digital forums provided users a place to exercise their First Amendment rights and connect with a larger audience to exchange and debate ideas. Mark Zuckerberg has stated that Facebook’s own goal is to create and promote community. Yet increasingly, social media sites and the data they create are being used to target activists and build sophisticated databases via what ProPublica dubbed "black-box" algorithms.

Currently Facebook has over 2 billion users each month. Each user has to give Facebook a smattering of information to create a profile — your name, email, birth date etc. But once you’re in the network, Zuckerberg and co. start building a much more in-depth picture of you. Indeed, without needing additional informed consent, Facebook is constantly collecting data on everything you do on its site as well as tracking you when you’re on other websites that leverage the Facebook platform.

Everything you click on, everything you like, every picture you view, every Facebook profile you visit, every person that is your Facebook friend, and on and on becomes data to be collected, stored, and analyzed. Even the people you meet offline can be tracked by Facebook.

This adds up to a lot of information currently in the hands of a company that has already proven not to always be the best arbiter of users’ privacy. The organization I work for, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), has highlighted Facebook’s multiple privacy issues over the years and filed subsequent complaints with Federal Trade Commission.

Once, social media sites like Facebook were largely seen as supporting democratic institutions.

For example, there was the time when Facebook decided to make changes to users’ privacy settings, which consequently disclosed to the public previously restricted personal information. Information that was once hidden from public view was now accessible to search engines and viewable on your Facebook profile to anyone, non-Facebook users included. Facebook Places, when it launched in August of 2010, by default disclosed a user’s location. And importantly, the process to disable the default setting was complicated and difficult to figure out.

In 2011, Facebook launched automated tagging of Facebook users in pictures uploaded to the social media website, thus placing all of its users in a massive facial recognition database without users’ consent. Currently, Facebook is in court over the company’s tracking of users while on medical websites.

The plaintiffs in that suit allege that Facebook “share” and “like” buttons embedded on healthcare websites allowed the company to personally identify visitors and collect highly sensitive healthcare-related information about them.

To be fair, Facebook has implemented some improved privacy practices — but these typically only happen after the public is made aware of the privacy-invasive activity and subsequently react negatively to it. At its core, Facebook, like most social media websites, wants as much of your data and as little oversight as possible. And where there is a large amount of data on millions of people, government surveillance will not be far behind.

The use of Facebook as a government surveillance tool is already happening, especially when it comes to immigrants and groups like Black Lives Matter. Companies like Geofeedia have used Facebook data and data from other social media companies to provide social media surveillance tools for law enforcement.

Facebook, like most social media websites, wants as much of your data and as little oversight as possible.

More recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) proposed adding social media information to the official files it keeps on all immigrants. CBP also proposed a new intelligence database that would include social media information; the parameters for this database are very broad. The agency is already collecting social media information to make visa determinations about individuals seeking to visit the U.S.

Obviously, government surveillance of social media raises serious privacy and civil liberties issues. A warrant is generally not required for access to your Facebook information making it easy for the government to engage in broad, indiscriminate surveillance of Facebook and other social media sites. It’s easy to see where this could lead: The targeting of individuals engaged in First Amendment protected activities and a chilling effect on free speech, expression, association and religion.

Case in point, Facebook and other social media sites were forced to cut-off the aforementioned Geofeedia’s access to their data after it was reported that Geofeedia was creating a surveillance product for law enforcement to target activists of color. Our Facebook profiles and other social media information should not be used to track our participation in lawful protests or make life-altering determinations.

This trend is dangerous. And we cannot be dependent on Facebook’s benevolence for protection in a world where so much of our daily activities are codified into data and collected by third parties. Indeed, we should be skeptical of Facebook’s own efforts to use artificial intelligence to monitor user data for what it deems dangerous content. To continue down this path is to passively accept a surveillance society and sacrifice the liberty that enables a democracy to flourish. We can and must do better.

Jeramie D. Scott is the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) National Security Counsel and Director of the EPIC Domestic Surveillance Project. His work focuses on privacy issues implicated by domestic surveillance programs with a particular focus on drones, cybersecurity, biometrics, and social media monitoring. Follow him on Twitter @JeramieScott.