Facebook: Social network site or privacy-invading, surveillance-enabling data harvester?


Facebook has become an apparatus for a performative and competitive collection of ‘friends’, a tool that facilitates both state and corporate surveillance, and interpersonal surveillance between friends, (ex) romantic partners and (potential) employers whilst users simultaneously watch and are watched. Given currently unfolding events embroiling Facebook, this paper will provide ample evidence that Facebook should be treated with extreme caution if one cannot completely avoid it.



Facebook, surveillance, privacy, data, social network, SNS, Zuckerberg, breach, identity, anonymity, information, fake news, elections, COPPA, FTC, regulation.



Whilst many will argue Facebook is a manna from heaven connecting long lost friends, lovers and those fighting for a common cause, whilst others argue that it sits somewhere alongside of the internet’s version of the devil and has been described as a “spy’s wet dream” with “tremendous power” that exists as a surveillance apparatus and tool for privacy invasion (Brill, 2012, p. 1296; Machon cited in Tshchurtsechenthaler & Nessel, 2015). It is anticipated that ample evidence will indicate that the latter is the more accurate descriptor.


Facebook undoubtedly fulfils boyd & Ellison’s (2007, p. 211) definition of a social network site in that it allows individuals to construct a profile, list other users with whom they share a connection, and view connections made by others within the system. Facebook is the world’s largest social network site and facilitates users’ “self-expression and self-presentation” whilst “articulating their social networks” (Palazon, Sicilia & Lopez, 2015, pp. 580, 582; Di Micco & Millen, 2007, p. 2). Facebook supports the exchange of content between users who unwittingly create a “transcript of their lives”, but only in ways advantageous to Facebook – rather than the user – and supports both “strong” tie (parents, family, best friends) and “weak tie” (school friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers) relationships (Turnbull, 2012; Clarke, 2014, p. 169; van der Velden & El Emam, 2013, p. 20). This is a major factor in Facebook’s rise because it encourages users to spend considerable time not only on the platform itself but also within its extended ecosystem via APIs and the planting of cookies in users’ web browsers. Its tentacles now reach almost all corners of the internet.


Facebook now has a “stunning” two billion active monthly users and has never grown its revenue by less than 40 per cent per year-on-year and (along with Google) now collects 84 per cent of the world’s digital advertising spend and two-thirds of every extra dollar of advertising spent globally (Maley, 2017, p. 26; Kehoe, 2017, p. 19; Kehoe, 2018, p. 9; Commins, 2018, p. 24). To highlight its dominance, 92 per cent of all SNS users are on Facebook (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie & Purcell, 2011). Put simply, Facebook has monetised humans’ desire for social interaction and its algorithms offer advertisers highly detailed user information that allows targeted advertising, so users are more likely to purchase their products.


It took Facebook eight years to reach one billion monthly users and less than half that time to reach 2 billion (Soros, 2018, p. 18). Given Facebook is banned in China (population approximately 1.3 billion) combined with the fact that a significant portion of the global south lack internet access, it can be argued that a majority of the global north now regularly access Facebook. Further, Facebook and its algorithms are also blamed for the peddling of Russian authored (and sponsored) “fake news” and “misinformation” that sowed “societal divisions” and delivered the US presidency to Trump (Kehoe. 2017, p. 19). Put simply, “highly intimate” personal data was mined from Facebook by data analytics firms such as Cambridge Analytica to politically manipulate voters (Wood, 2017, p. 16; Grubb, 2018, p. 9). As this paper was being prepared, the Cambridge Analytica scandal had engulfed Facebook in relation to privacy breaches of 50 million accountholders during the 2016 presidential election campaign, and partook in “electoral dark arts” in Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and India and the UK’s Brexit vote (Tharoor, 2018, p. 27). On the two trading days after the revelations, Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth declined by approximately $US9 billion and Facebook is now in the sights US and European regulators. Clearly, the ongoing negative publicity will have implications for Facebook.


With respect to the US Presidential election, almost 500 Russia-linked accounts had promoted “inflammatory” messages during the campaign, leading to Zuckerberg proclaiming that Facebook would be “more transparent” in future (Shane & Isaac, 2017, p. 13). Zuckerberg’s duplicity was evidenced by his “underscor[ing]” of Facebook’s status as a global media giant which stands in direct contrast to his proclamations to Facebook investors (Shane & Isaac, 2017, p. 13). Further, Zuckerberg’s control of Facebook has been compared to Rupert Murdoch’s of News Corp in that Zuckerberg holds 14 per cent of of the shares, yet controls 60 per cent of the voting shares (McDuling, 2018, p. 27). Facebook is Zuckerberg’s fiefdom and even if shareholders become disgruntled he is virtually impossible to remove because he holds the majority of the voting rights.


Given 62 per cent of American adults now access their news on social media, this has led to calls for Facebook to be regulated as a news company (Pew Research Centre cited in and; Kehoe, 2017, p. 19). Further, Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm decides which stories appear in each user’s NewsFeed, leading to the situation where users only receive the news that conforms to their own personal views, creating “filter bubbles” that reinforce a user’s views (Palazon et al., 2015, p. 592; McDuling, 2018, p. 26). This has major implications for political and social discourse if the news and articles pushed to users by Facebook’s algorithms lacks diversity and balance. Put simply, opposing views will be silenced and there is the possibility societies will become less enlightened.


If this is not enough to concern users, then the views of Wall Street hedge fund tsar, George Soros – a man hardly known for his advocating of government intervention or regulation – must be considered. Soros (2018, p. 19) accuses Facebook of “exploit[ing] the social environment” with “monopolistic behaviour” that “interferes with the functioning of democracy” and urges the US’s regulatory authorities to protect society from Facebook’s practices. Further, Facebook has become so economically powerful (and so wealthy) that it is able to simply “swallow” any competitive threat by offering the founders of competing start-ups money beyond their wildest dreams, as it did when it acquired WhatsApp and Instagram that in hindsight “should not have been allowed” (McDuling, 2018, p. 27). This allowed Facebook to further penetrate users’ mobile activities via access to smartphone operating systems (Commins, 2018, p. 24; Soros, 2018, p. 19). Such behaviour stifles competition and innovation and is further evidence that regulators have a duty to protect society against such anti-competitive practices (Park, 2013, p. 216; Soros, 2018, p. 19). It is ironic that calls for regulation are coming from proponents of free markets – including regulators from politics’ right – which indicates gave concerns about Facebook misusing its considerable power.


Further, Facebook cannot defend its practices with claims it is a good corporate citizen. Its “tax avoidance strategies” have allowed it to maintain a low effective company tax rate via the use of tax havens including the Republic of Ireland (Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, p. 385). Nor is Facebook a large employer by global standards. For evidence, Facebook employs in the region of only 10,000 staff globally – not a lot by multinational standards (Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, p. 386). For comparison, Australia’s BHP and Commonwealth Bank (whose respective market capitalisations are approximately one-fifth and one quarter of Facebook’s) employ 65,000 and 51,000 respectively.


But perhaps the biggest concern regarding Facebook is simply the amount of user data it collects. As Skeggs & Yuill (2016, p. 382) state, Facebook has become a data collection service for the state, providing data on an almost unimaginable scale. Original founder Jim Breyer has a relationship to the CIA’s venture capital firm In-Q-Tel whilst co-founder Peter Thiel is a “major investor” in Palantir which performs intelligence gathering services on behalf of the CIA. This must be considered alongisde co-founder and current CEO (and now one of the planet’s wealthiest individuals) Mark Zuckerberg’s public (and constant) declarations of the “death” of privacy as justification for Facebook’s “uniformly hostile” privacy settings where users are “discouraged” from altering the default settings so they “disclose the maximum data” (Clarke, 214, p. 181; Goettke & Christiana, 2007, p. 2; Edwards, 2010, p. 872). This should alarm Facebook users. Not only do its founders have commercial relationships with the US intelligence community – that has itself has had many considerable (domestic and foreign) policy failings – they are also publicly telling users to not worry about privacy because it’s dead anyway. Given Facebook’s position as the dominant Web 2.0 platform, it can also be argued that humans’ desire to interact on the platform is a major factor behind increased acceptance of declining privacy – a trend many western governments have exploited.


Any discussion of Facebook must be considered alongside the degree of privacy invasion to which Facebook’s users are subjected. Privacy is a subjective issue, but Clarke (2014, p. 175) defines it as the “personal space free from interference by other people and organisations” whilst Lessig (1998, p. 1) refers to the private as the residual after the searchable and the monitored is subtracted from all else. Facebook now has approximately one million bits of data on each Facebook user (Boyd, 2017, p. 52). Clearly on Facebook, there is very little activity conducted by users that is not either searchable or monitored. This has been exacerbated by the ubiquity of the smartphone which allows Facebook to know exactly what users think and do, and where they are doing it.


Facebook users are also subject to privacy intrusion by employers and potential employers, with 45 per cent of hiring managers admitting to accessing Facebook for information about job candidates (Qi & Edgar-Nevill, 2011, p. 74; Trottier, 2012, p. 331, Loeffler, 2012, p. 15; Clarke, 2014, pp. 172, 181). In addition, 60 per cent of US college students admit using Facebook to “check up on significant others…and check people out” (Trottier, 2012, p. 324; Lyon, 2015, p. 140). It could also be argued that the true proportion of college students undertaking such practices may be significantly higher given that many students would not admit to using Facebook for such nefarious purposes. Such privacy invasion extends to academia and its role in the unfolding Cambridge Analytica “scandal of the century” (EU cited in; and Ram, 2018, p. 17). Put simply, the quantum of information Facebook makes available to its advertisers incentivises misconduct because the financial rewards are so lucrative.


The amount of information disclosed by Facebook users due to their “exhibitionist” tendencies also facilitates “voyeuristic” behaviour, “stalking” and “creeping” (Feng & Xie, 2104, p. 157; Mohamed & Ahmad, 2012, p. 158; Child, Haridakis & Petronio, 2012, pp. 1862, 1870; Clarke, 2014, p. 171; Trottier, p. 326). boyd (2008, p. 16) suggests Facebook is a platform for “gossiping” where users display a “look at us” degree of narcissism. Facebook users thus have the possibility to both “see and be seen” and a performative and competitive aspect exists between users who “collect” friends (Marwick & boyd, 2016, p. 1052; Jernigan & Mistree, 2009). This competitive and performative aspect encourages users to submit information (usually via multimedia) of ever-increasingly glamourous holidays, restaurants, etc. to reinforce how ‘great’ their lives are to those within their social networks. Facebook then further utilises this information. The long-term mental effects of users comparing their ordinary daily lives to their friends’ filtered highlights reel are yet to be fully understood.


There is evidence that young Facebook users are concerned about their privacy but are unable to act upon these concerns because of its deliberately “ambiguous” default privacy settings that lack transparency (van der Velden & El Emam, 2013, p. 16; Verma, Kshirsagar & Khan, 2013, p. 310; Tokunanga, 2011, p. 705). The lower the privacy settings employed by users, the greater the amount of information disclosed which also results in Facebook being able to charge its advertisers a premium for its highly targeted advertising.  Further, Facebook’s dominance SNSs has seen young people feel “compelled to join” and “willingly” forego privacy to facilitate participation because to “exist online”, teens must “type themselves into being” (Murray & Grigg, 2018, p. 16; van der Velden & El Emam, 2013, p. 17; Marwick & boyd, 2016, p. 1054). Whilst Facebook prohibits children under the age of thirteen from joining, 7.5 million US children (5 million of whom are under ten) have Facebook accounts – in direct contravention of the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (Brill, 2012, p. 1299). This is further evidence of Facebook’s flagrant flouting of laws to harvest more data. Put simply, even children have a value to Facebook whilst the financial penalties regulators impose are an irrelevance to it.


Another facet of Facebook’s policies that warrants consideration is its requirement for users to sign-up with their real name so as not to “provide any false personal information” whilst asking users to also reveal their email, school and location (Facebook cited in Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, pp. 383-4; Feng & Xie, p. 155). Thus, anonymity – the “state where a person is not identifiable” – is not only discouraged on Facebook, its Terms of Service expressly prohibit it on the basis it represents a “lack of integrity” (Qian & Scott, 2007, p. 1429; Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, p. 383). However, as Skeggs & Yuill (2016, p. 383) states the integrity that Zuckerberg is concerned with is not a user’s – it is the integrity of the information that Facebook is commoditising and selling. Facebook is only interested in quality information because misinformation is of a lesser value to it.


Zuckerberg has publicly proclaimed that “the days of having a different image” for your various social networks (friends, family, work colleagues, etc.) are “coming to an end pretty quickly” (Foer, 2017, p. 40). As Foer (2017, p. 40) states, this is simply “idealism and an elaborate justification for Facebook’s business model” because it provides its users with the information they “crave” and creates a “feedback loop” that pushes them “deeper and deeper into [their] amen corners”. There is an irony in Facebook’s declaration that users having multiple images is frowned upon given it has a policy to “abide by local laws” even if those laws infringe on human rights and democratic freedoms (Facebook cited in Wallace, 2017, p. 43). Zuckerberg has also met with China’s Minister of Propaganda and Premier in attempts to persuade the government to allow Facebook to be accessed from within China, with the Propaganda Minster hoping that Facebook could “share experiences and improve mutual understanding” with the Chinese government (Hurwitz, 2016). Given China’s treatment of dissidents and protestors, it is not difficult to imagine Facebook being allowed into China on the basis it turns over user data to the government.


Brugger (cited in Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, p. 386) highlights the fact that it is not only the activities users conduct within Facebook that allows it to track users, but also the fact that activities undertaken on the web outside Facebook’s ecosystem via its implanting of cookies in users’ browsers and advertisers’ APIs. It has reached to the point where it would require ceasing internet use or “turn[ing] off the machine and mov[ing] to Iceland” as the only possible remedies to Facebook’s intrusive practices because Facebook “tracks us to trade us” and treats each profile as a commodity (Skeggs & Yuill, 2016, p. 387; Lessig, 2013; Beer cited in van Dijck & Nieborg, 2009, p. 865). It is precisely because of this that Facebook is now among the world’s top 5 most valuable companies– the ubiquity of internet usage is such that consumers are unable (unless extremely technically savvy) to circumvent Facebook’s tracking. Thus, the typical Facebook users are the ones that Facebook is most likely to possess the greatest information about because they lack the technical nous to stop Facebook tracking them.


As far back as 1998, Lessig (1998, p. 1) suggested that internet users would be able to sell their private information and extract a value for the loss of privacy that was to undoubtedly occur from increased internet usage. That has plainly not occurred. Facebook also attempts to absolve itself of responsibility should its customers (i.e. the advertisers that pay it for your data) misuse your data stating “we cannot guarantee that [third parties] will follow our rules” (Facebook cited in Feng & Xie, 2014, p. 158). Thus, Facebook’s users are potentially exposed to malfeasance from Facebook’s clients whilst Facebook argues it’s not liable for such breaches.


One of the few examples of Facebook at least attempting to maintain a semblance of privacy for its users is represented by its resistance to offering ‘backdoors’ with respect to the decrypting of user communication – despite requests from governments (including Australia’s) (Sier, 2017, p. 5). Such privacy protecting measures are the exception. However, the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program and mining of Facebook data represents a space where state and corporate surveillance interact, and one must ponder how complicit Facebook is with many arms of the US government given the US government is also a major client of Facebook (Allmer, 2014, p. 378; Lessig, 2013). Given the Cambridge Analytica revelations, it is conceivable that Facebook will offer regulators/governments the prized backdoors in return for regulators ‘going easy’ or ‘running dead’ in any future action against Facebook – particularly in the US.


Humans are social beings who crave interaction and Facebook has used this to become one of the world’s largest companies. This is possible because of the price it extracts from advertisers for highly detailed user information. Facebook’s users are seldom aware of how (or by whom) their information is used and where it ends up, or how Facebook tracks them on the internet. Of course, all this may be a price many are willing to pay for the convenience of being able to connect or reconnect with friends and relatives, lovers and like-minded souls from around the world.


Questions also persist about Facebook’s corporate conduct given its “hostile” privacy settings its well-publicised tax avoidance strategies, its democracy-undermining role in elections, its stifling of innovation and competition, feudal and monopolistic behaviour, and regular contravention of child protection laws (Clarke, 2014, p. 181; Brill, 2012, p. 1299; Ram, 2018, p. 17; Murray & Grigg, 2018, p. 16). This is exacerbated by links Facebook’s founders have to the US intelligence community and Zuckerberg’s attempts to penetrate regimes with questionable human rights track records.


Considering the above, Facebook must be primarily viewed as a data-harvesting surveillance tool with weak privacy and must be used with extreme caution if one cannot completely avoid it. As this paper was being finalised, Zuckerberg has promised it won’t happen again and has apologised (again) whilst also admitting to a(nother) major breach of trust. The only surprise is that anybody is surprised.





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