Facebook as Google for Criminals

Peter Burnett, author of How to Do Privacy in the 21st Century, argues we should be surprised at the surprise over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

One of my preferred places on Facebook is the Bella Caledonia Public Group. It isn’t the echo chamber some might imagine – there are vastly differing viewpoints across the left and it’s possible to have a sound discussion in this group with people from all over. Many visit this Public Group just to see what’s being said, as a form of news gathering, or to widen perspective or sometimes even to narrow it. Some go there for a fight, and there are always a few of these too.

Looked at from the outside however, even the Public Group is a potentially dangerous prospect. What better place to gather in a matter of seconds the names, preferences, images, friends and families of thousands of people whom some might wish to broadly brand as YES supporters, socialists, egalitarians, anarchists, republicans, communal thinkers and other believers in self-rule?

As recently as two decades ago, political canvassers and marketeers of all stamps had to guess how individuals and thus the collective would behave in elections and other situations. The problem at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica news this week, is that since this information is now readily available, the challenge is as Analytica puts it themselves, “to use data to change audience behaviour”.

Why is Facebook highlighted so, however? Every large company collects data, and every small one does too. My own modest small business collects the email addresses, ages and gender of its customers in order to contact them in the hope they’ll use our service again. We are all gathering data, but the issue with Facebook in the Cambridge Analytica case is not the scale. The issue is that active collusion between political parties and these firms is frustratingly easy to chart, but hard to prove.

As a Facebook user, you are not just providing data, but you are collecting it also. Facebook want you to do this and that is a part of their power and charm. If you are in business, the plan is simple: when you make money, they make money.

That is to say, if you are selling a product or service using Facebook, the more of it you sell, the better they will do too. It’s a corruption of the capitalist model whereby we become the product. Imagine your data as your surplus if you like, and the more of it you have, the more value you have as a product.

As a political product, your discomfort may increase, and we must all wonder about our chances in any forthcoming referenda and elections. The first US presidential election to involve fake news was in 1844. One story involved a newspaper report about an alleged slaveholder who apparently met with some of Democrat James Polk’s slaves cruelly branded with Polk’s initials, proof it was said that Polk had sold slaves to raise money for his campaign. It was not true.

In the UK, Joseph Ball, the Conservative Party’s director of publicity placed a spy in the Labour Party’s printing works, in the 1930s, and in the absence of Facebook, that was as bad as it could get.

The only wisdom which can here be derived is that we should work harder to vote with our heads, and not our hearts, which is easier said than done, especially given that Cambridge Analytica have been captured on tape stating that it was they who made Trump a reality. They are not the only people boasting about this, I should add. Roger Stone takes credit for Trump’s win in much the same way, and even Nigel Farage wants to be associated with this piggish victory, arguing that it was Ukip and Brexit which “directly led” to Donald Trump’s presidency.

Once more, we should be surprised at the surprise. The Guardian video of Christopher Wylie, the so-called whistle-blower in the Cambridge Analytica case explains nothing that we do not know already.

Shock! “They had apps on Facebook that were given special permission to harvest data not just from the person who used the app, or joins the app, but also it would then go into their entire friend network and pull out all of the friends’ data as well.”

The misinformation in this sentence alone (published in The Guardian) is not helpful. The permission in this instance was not ‘special’ insofar as it pertains to any Facebook app; and it could not pull ‘all’ the data of a user’s friends. What is described is of course carried out by tens of thousands of companies and apps, and done so all the time because it is what Facebook was built for. The most misleading part of this interview is the question:

“And people had no idea their data was been taken in this way?” which query returns the answer “No.”

I call this misleading because each responsible user of Facebook assumes that they are not subject to privacy. There are settings which may minimise this, but it isn’t much of a jump to assume that advertisers and campaigners are digging deep here and selling us shoes, snacks, presidents and withdrawals from economic unions that we don’t need. Worse is the claim the claim that Cambridge Analytica spent in Christopher Wylie’s words, “a million dollars” on this. It makes them sound like Dr Evil, from Austin Powers.

“It looks today as if psychology researcher Aleksandr Kogan is going to be hung out to dry by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica as a momentary distraction while we go back to those videos of people and dogs sliding about on ice. All he wanted to do, argues the psychologist, is predict how people will behave. What is sure is that business will continue as usual with Facebook users learning nothing they did not already know.”

I highlight this, because as you are aware, the data is freely available and a million dollars is not required to access it. A fellow contributor of mine at the magazine 2600, Anthony Russel, demonstrated this last year, in a proposal he titled Converting the Voter Database and Facebook into a Google for Criminals.

Using freely available info, Russell made a proof of concept app that took the Ohio voter database and linked it to Facebook and found out that he could be accurate 45% of the time. The result of this was that if the voter database he used contained 6.5 million people, he could be confident about extrapolating 2.86 million records by matching them with Facebook. The process was ultimately simple, and it began with the public electoral roll, which contains the first name, last name, date of birth and home address of everybody above age.

“To start,” said Anthony, “I had to see what public data was available. In short, there’s a ton. No wonder we get marketed nonstop by mail. The government takes our personal information and puts it on the web for free. Write a couple of scripts and you can tap it anytime.”

To begin with then, Russell accessed public voter records, which contained the above details of 6.5 million people in a straightforward CSV (Comma Separated Value) file which could be opened by any spreadsheet program.

What he did then, was to make the same basic Facebook queries to find people in a certain area, and when he had them, he continued hit these records with a search which would have probably looked something like this:


Once he had generated a list of potential matching profiles, my colleague generated confidence scores, to predict the accuracy of any given result. Using the names, dates of birth and addresses that he had accessed publicly, he could then synchronise this data and present a confidence score that this profile match was accurate.

Russel presented his redacted script in 2600 magazine, and wrote: “I was able to run this script over thousands of people without getting rate limited by Facebook. Conceivably, I could run this nonstop and eventually build a giant database.”

Such a process could leverage all sorts of data which we might imagine is private, but which is commonly attainable. It could offer all kinds of information, such as all the people that work for a specific company, or all the elderly people in a certain area, information on groups, families and public services, including their personnel. Such a database could also target people by interest, and be used for marketing, or indeed any of many criminal abuses.

Russell concluded: “Allowing anyone to download the entire voter database is probably a dumb idea. I understand why voter records are public and it’s for a good reason. That said, the government just enabled me to build a Google for criminal enterprises. Facebook should also probably be limiting the above queries.”

It does appear here that Facebook data has been used for criminal ends, as it is not legal to influence elections by spending such large sums on advertising which pretends not to be affiliated with a particular candidate or party. There are some rules of the jungle that are being followed very closely at the same time, though. Take this statement from Lynton Crosby:

“At its absolute simplest, a campaign is simply finding out who will decide the outcome … where are they, what matters to them, and how do you reach them?”

Crosby, who ran the Tories’ 2015 UK General Election campaign and who also saw Boris Johnson elected mayor of a largely left-leaning London, has been preaching this gospel since the 1990s, long before Facebook began, and he wins elections because he is skilled at voter-targeting. And I would imagine that in any election, voter-targeting plays a significant part, even though ethical questions will abound when people who will do anything they can to win, are employed.

It looks today as if psychology researcher Aleksandr Kogan is going to be hung out to dry by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica as a momentary distraction while we go back to those videos of people and dogs sliding about on ice. All he wanted to do, argues the psychologist, is predict how people will behave. What is sure is that business will continue as usual with Facebook users learning nothing they did not already know. We can agree with Cambridge Analytica’s executives insofar as elections are on the whole about emotions and not facts.

But nobody, and I mean nobody has quit Facebook in despair and outrage at this story. We can therefore hope that, just as with the LABOUR ISN’T WORKING poster of 1979, we don’t continue to vote on the basis of memes, but on issues, because that is exactly what has happened here.

Comments (22)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Willie says:

    Let’s all be clear about this

    Facebook and Google are part of a mass surveillance system whereby with the use of super computing the rich and powerful can manipulate what the masses think and do.

    It is the tool of a totalitarian state where the people don’t know what’s actually going on, and how they are being manipulated.

    And it is in truth something I think the masses will never break out of. The system is too powerful and too many of the people are too blinkered to ever see.

    Orwell saw coming in Animal Farm and he was right.

    1. Peter B says:

      Thanks Willie, the little we do know about what’s going on is enough to reach correct assumptions such as you reach here – they have a name for us in this context and it is ‘The Unconcerned’

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I had a letter in The Herald today suggesting that what Cambridge Analytica were caught doing is routinely done in the corridors of power here and everywhere else.

    Do we ever wonder what the thousands working in GCHQ, and their leaders that pull their strings, get up to in between looking for “TERRORISTS” to keep the worry pot boiling.

    1. Peter B says:

      I have been trying to look into who does the most of this and this ‘it’s all fair game and anything goes attitude’ seems to crop up much more from right wing parties – see the documentary GET ME ROGER STONE to see how low they go – and are proud of it.

  3. Thom Cross says:

    Several yeards ago I had a piece in BC that tried to raise the major concern of the fact that virtually all the major social media giants were American. I argued that this placed enormous power within the grasp of Washington offering existential power in global communication that was as strategic as military resources. Surely Europe has missed the boat in not creating a competitive cyber data-communications source ? Asking USA owned giants like Google or Facebook to “behave” under the rule of Pres Trump is a major waste of time and resources.

    1. Peter B says:

      I wonder if Europe based social networks would be better? European social media and tech (eg Skype) pretty much always gets bought up by USA anyway – I don’t think VK or OK or MOI MIR and other Russian social networks are any better than the US ones, just as bad from what I’ve seen. The case of Lauri Love was interesting this week – he was not extradited to USA from UK – very important really as it shows is they are not the World Internet Police they’d like to be.

  4. davis robinsn says:

    your comment correctomundo …twitter forever

  5. TFS says:

    You could look at peoples use off Facebook and Google another way.

    Yes, we know they are spying on us. Yes Facebook can be addictive. Yes we’ve lost a lot, BUT they are dependent on us. They need us. Take that away from them and remove yourself from Facebook (like I’ve just done), and suddenly, who holds the power?

    People forget that power.

    The biggest voting right people have, the £$ in their pocket. No fuss, no demos, just deciding where not to spend your money. Its like MLK and GHANDI all in one shop and appeals to all us COUCH POTATOES.

    Never forget, they’re addicted to OUR CASH.

    1. Peter B says:

      They need us yes but the dopamine released by the sight of a LIKE or a friend request is hard for us to argue with. I’d argue though that they could still have my money (ie I would consider paying for Google or Facebook – I mean what? £5 a month?) and in return retain my data – technically that is not a hard feat but not one I’ve ever heard suggested.

  6. Ottomanboi says:

    It was during the struggle against the self-styled Islamic State that the US originated cyber world of FB, twitter, YouTube etc proved useful.
    Beheadings, burnings, rapes, slave auctions, propaganda etc were to had at a few clicks of your device.
    For millions the ‘just connect’ fairyland of Zuckerberg et al. morphed into hell. As the darkside of the internet world breaks the horizon and casts its shadow over the West, its liberal democracies seem rather in awe of the view.

  7. james says:

    i think a much better title would be ”facebook AND google for criminals”…. google is probably more insidious in it’s collection of data for use at a further date…

    1. david Robinson says:

      yup …with Carpethead Trump leader of the “FREE” world were all doomed ..off to hell in a handcart <<

  8. SleepingDog says:

    If Facebook is a complex adaptive system and its users are autonomous agents, then it may well exhibit features like unpredictable population collapses seen in other systems. Before the latest Cambridge Analytica revelations, it appears that Facebook’s daily active usership in North America declined for the first time in last quarter of 2017:
    with a nicely-shaped graph.

    If Facebook’s business model is based on growth and membership is predicated largely on people you know being on the platform in future, it could be entering a transitional phase where:
    1) some (influential) advertisers leave
    2) some (influential) investors disinvest
    3) some regional usage declines (see above)
    4) demographic saturation or changes or discriminative behaviour (like young people not going to church) dries up new members

    which in turn could lead to effects like advertisers moving to a different platform, investors looking for the next big thing as share price falls, regional or global competitors emerging, demographic sectors favouring different (cooler?) platforms.

    In turn, this could lead to increasingly panicky reactions by Facebook’s management, perhaps leading to ill-judged needy nagging (like LinkedIn) and gimmicks, fuelling a death-spiral of haemorrhaging membership as people leave increasingly because their friends have left (and few want to be last on the deck of a sinking ship). A snowball becomes an avalanche.

    It’s difficult to predict, but it would not surprise me if it happened sooner rather than later. And if you are writing an article about data, it would help to have some to back up an assertion of nobody quitting Facebook over this. People are complex too, and this Cambridge Analytics news story might just be the last straw for some (as some individuals have indeed publicly asserted).

    1. Peter B says:

      Yes, you are right that I can’t back up the claim that nobody has left; more accurately then I merely canvassed friends, read what I could and looked through comments on stuff like Guardian fur people that were fed up with it and quit over this; so yes, anecdotal and not scientific.

      The decline in FB users is promising but still predictable (the globe only contains so many potential users!) but they are still developing fast and growing because new data markets open all the time. They have acquired Israeli firm face.com because the next huge swoop for them will be in the market of ‘faceprint’ data. This is currently burgeoning and they will lead this market while we all merrily upload more pics of ourselves and friends to supply them with product. So user base may in fact stagnate while at the same time data is refined and becomes more deadly. Their size will increase again when the faceprint boom and subsequent (but undoubtedly too late) public discussion begins.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Peter B, I appreciate your reply.

        I forgot to add, further to “naggy”, my thoughts that Facebook could then turn nasty as its management felt under threat, which would have made my subsequent discovery of their legal threat to the Guardian Media Group appear more prescient.

        I am not convinced that such one-trick corporations can withstand what is presumably called in the trade the vicious downward spiral of “brand impoverishment”.

        1. Peter B says:

          I was thankfully wrong about people leaving Facebook, which I see is definitely happening now. For those that have been swithering about it now is a great time. FB have been so slow to respond to this, at least to the public, and this to my mind isn’t even their worst scandal. What about Zuck calling it’s users ‘dumb f***s’; what about their offering clients in Australia real time monitoring of teenagers who felt ‘worthless’ or ‘isolated’ last year; their experiments in 2014 in making an unnotified group of several hundred thousand users negative posts in order to change their mood. In fact the company was started in scandal with allegedly stolen IP … its legit social uses seemed dwarfed by these abuses now.

          Thanks for your comments

  9. donny wilmer says:

    How is this all lawful to do?
    USA has its 4th Amendment
    guarantee of privacy. How
    have these companies and
    institutions managed to do
    what the constitution forbids
    even the government to do?
    And how is lying and misrepresentation of facts
    (“Fake News”) a lawful thing
    to perpetrate?
    As for facial-recognition software, the people will have
    to resort now to using Hollywood-style special effects,
    latex masks, to conceal their
    identities as they move through
    the world.

    1. Peter B says:

      It’s lawful because in the terms and conditions we allow this kind of thing without giving it too much thought, and because Facebook have traditionally had this “opt in” policy about for example collecting friends’ data.

      What is definitely illegal is sharing data unsanctioned by users (which happened here) and its illegal to have political campaigns using advertising that can be directly tied to political parties – ie tying the Trump campaign to the SuperPACs in the states and the likes of leave.eu here.

      For all the stress of it, I did enjoy our 2014 indyref. I’ve a feeling the next one will be much less pleasant which makes me sad indeed.

  10. David Robinson says:

    Certainly a good debate on this platform ,,,we have to be mindful or the power that tyrants like Citizen Trump can wield and use against us

  11. notheonly1 says:

    Can the correlation be established, that in conjunction with the activities of Cambridge Analytica, who are obviously able to influence the outcome of any election, the behavior of social network users is also influenced, or better manipulated into succumbing to such network’s stronghold on the human brain?
    That would explain why not more users step away from this severe abuse. It is reminiscent of the monkey that gets a fruit when he hits a certain button. The reward creates an addiction to the pressing of the button. Monkeys go cold turkey when the rewards seize. What the fruit is for the monkey, the ‘Like’, ‘Friend Request’ and response to comments are to the human brain. Once the addiction is established via the hard-wiring of the dopamine creating feedback loop, is it at all possible for social network users to let go of their addiction?
    Is it not much more resembling of the NSDAP network from 1933-1945 that made quitting it all but impossible? One clings to the network even in the face of the most detrimental effects the network has on one’s physical environment. The question of “What will it take for people to wake up?” might best be answered with “What did it take the Germans to wake up from their network addiction?”

    The Human Condition is like a self-satisfying feedback loop – it profits from its shortcomings and thus perpetuates those.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.