Assange brands Facebook as a "spy machine"

Ronny Kerr · May 3, 2011 · Short URL:

Intelligence agencies around the world might salivate for Facebook data, but it's not free to have

Hey, remember Julian Assange? Almost half a year ago, the WikiLeaks founder had captivated news outlets and social media as much as Osama bin Laden has these past few days. And now he’s trying to stir the pot some more by taking aim at Facebook.

Assange argues that all the content we share on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter aids governmental intelligence agencies in spying on citizens’ activity, as revealed in an interview with Russia Today.

The man, outed as once having quite the interesting dating site profile, went on to call Facebook “the most appalling spying machine ever invented.”

That’s not all he had to say:

“Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence.

“It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena-- they have an interface they have developed for U.S. intelligence to use. Now, is the case that Facebook is actually run by U.S. intelligence? No, it’s not like that. It’s simply that U.S. intelligence is able to bring to bear legal and political pressure to them. And it’s costly for them to hand out individual records, one by one, so they have automated the process."

It’s not exactly automation. Many Web services, especially those with global reach like Facebook, Google and Yahoo, offer interfaces built entirely for government officials to request site data. That form on Facebook is pictured here.

The existence of such an interface doesn’t automatically mean that Facebook and the rest are catering to intelligence agencies, though. It just shows that the companies receive a lot of requests, from the CIA down to the local police officer, and they need a way to manage the cases.

Like a reporter contacting Facebook through the standard press channel, a government official may not glean all the information they seek simply by requesting it through the form. That is, unless Facebook is required by law to do so.

“We don’t respond to pressure, we respond to compulsory legal process,” says a Facebook spokesperson. “There has never been a time we have been pressured to turn over data — 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.”

Assange may be dead right in describing Facebook users as doing all the work for intelligence agencies. The amount of data stored on that social network alone is unprecedented. Over 600 million active users around the world--half of which log in any given day--share 30 billion pieces of content every month. Content includes Web links, notes, photos, status updates, everything. Most things a person might possibly want to share with another person can be shared via Facebook.

And if it’s ever a legal organization’s prerogative to acquire that kind of data, then Facebook must acquiesce. For that reason, the responsibility for data sharing must be split between the company and its users. While it’s certainly helpful to have watchdogs like Assange making sure Facebook honors user privacy, it is just as much in the hands of users to be careful in posting content to the Web.

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