Could Facebook Track The Locations Of Journalists And Politicians It Deems A 'Threat'?
Yesterday CNBC broke the story that Facebook uses its platform and mobile app to track the location of its users that it deems to be “threats” to the company. Leveraging the fact that more than 2 billion people around the world have Facebook accounts and allow the company to track their location and even realtime location through their IP addresses and smartphone app, Facebook uses this information to track users it believes pose a threat to the company, creating geofencing alerts when they come near Facebook facilities. This previously unpublicized practice raises serious concerns about the ways in which Facebook may repurpose its users’ most intimate information for its own business purposes. Most seriously, it raises the question of whether Facebook may use a similar tactic to track the realtime location of journalists, diplomats and politicians around the world that it considers to be “threats” to the company’s business interests.
Like many large global companies, Facebook maintains lists of individuals that are banned from its premises. Most companies, however, are limited to matching these lists against visitor requests and alerting their security staff to be on the lookout for particularly high-risk individuals.
According to CNBC, Facebook, on the other hand, has leveraged its position as a global surveillance and intelligence database to repurpose its own platform to track problematic users in realtime. Given how many users install the Facebook mobile app on their smartphones, Facebook can use its own app to secretly track those users as they go about their lives. Without any notice or warning to the user, Facebook can simply flip a switch and view where that user is on a map and even create a geofence around its facilities to know when that individual comes near them.
On paper, Facebook’s location tracking operation exists to protect its facilities and employees from physical threats. In a request for comment, the company stated that it performs location tracking when it believes there is a credible risk of physical violence against one of its employees.
However, notably, the company’s response specifically avoided stating that this is the only reason it uses location tracking, leaving open the possibility that it may track users for other reasons.
Asked about the ethics of using user location data, the company noted that users consent to allow the company to do whatever it wishes with their realtime location information, per its Data Policy: “Data from device settings: information you allow us to receive through device settings you turn on, such as access to your GPS location, camera or photos.”
It is worth noting that that the line above, which Facebook cited in defense of its location tracking program, also permits it to access the user’s camera and photos stored on their phone. Such access has eerie echoes of the NSA phone hacking activities publicized by Edward Snowden.
The company also cited this line in its Data Policy: “We use the information we have to verify accounts and activity, combat harmful conduct, detect and prevent spam and other bad experiences, maintain the integrity of our Products, and promote safety and security on and off of Facebook Products. For example, we use data we have to investigate suspicious activity or violations of our terms or policies, or to detect when someone needs help.”
It also cited a third line in its Data Policy with regards to accessing private user data: “When we have a good-faith belief it is necessary to: detect, prevent and address fraud, unauthorized use of the Products, violations of our terms or policies, or other harmful or illegal activity; to protect ourselves (including our rights, property or Products), you or others, including as part of investigations or regulatory inquiries; or to prevent death or imminent bodily harm. For example, if relevant, we provide information to and receive information from third-party partners about the reliability of your account to prevent fraud, abuse and other harmful activity on and off our Products.”
The fact that Facebook would cite such an extraordinarily broad set of circumstances when asked the reasons it might perform location tracking of a user suggests that the company may not always restrict accesses solely to cases of threats of physical harm.
Specifically, those clauses raise the possibility that Facebook might consider it justified to track elected officials that it considers to be threats to its business model due to legislation they have proposed and journalists it considers to be threats to the confidentiality of its business practices for exposing damaging information about the company.
For example, the company could use its location tracking to monitor journalists it suspects of meeting with company employees or former employees and monitor to see if their phones appear nearby any of its current or former employees or contractors. It could also monitor policymakers that have proposed legislation that could impact the company’s bottom line and track what phones appear near them or their aides on a day-to-day basis to determine who they might be meeting with to get an edge on what legislation proposals might be coming.
Asked whether it has ever tracked journalists that have exposed confidential business practices or policymakers that have threatened legislation that would curtail the company’s business activities, a spokesperson reiterated that it has very specific policies governing how it decides to use location tracking and that location tracking is permitted for physical threats.
However, notably, the company stopped short of explicitly denying that it has ever tracked a journalist or lawmaker for a reason other than a perceived immediate physical threat of violence against the company.
Asked to state for the record that Facebook has never tracked the location of a journalist in order to determine their confidential sources or a policymaker to determine who they are meeting with, a company spokesperson responded that the company would not be commenting.
For a company that has forcefully pushed back on many claims surrounding its most controversial practices, the company’s refusal to state for the record that it has not tracked journalists and policymakers for reasons outside of physical threats is nothing short of extraordinary and suggests there may be far more to this program than the company has acknowledged.
In many cases the program resembles Uber’s former “God mode” capability that could track its users in realtime.
Facebook’s ability to use user location data for its own purposes suggests governments are likely using the same capability to track dissidents and others they dislike.
Asked whether Facebook has complied with lawful court orders from the US or foreign governments to track individuals around the world for any purpose, the company noted that it has an obligation to comply with legal requests and did not deny doing so.
Facebook’s global reach means that countries around the world can in effect outsource their global surveillance operations to the company, using court orders to track anyone anywhere as they move about their daily lives. A dissident fleeing a repressive government can no longer escape surveillance, with their government able to turn to Facebook not only to track them around the world, but observe who they meet with. Even if the dissident does not use Facebook, anyone they meet with who does will be tracked.
Asked whether the company would permit third party auditing of its use of location tracking to ensure that it has complied with its own policies and to determine all of the situations under which it has used such tracking, a spokesperson said the company would not be commenting.
Once again, we are reminded that for all of Facebook’s reassurances and calls to “trust us,” we have absolutely no independent verification of any of its claims.
Putting this all together it is nothing short of extraordinary that Facebook not only is secretly mapping the locations of users it considers “threats” but that it refuses to deny on the record having used that capability to track journalists and policymakers that pose a threat to its business activities rather than a physical threat. Even if it turns out that the company has not yet exploited its tracking for such purposes, there is absolutely nothing preventing it from doing so.
With a flip of a switch, Facebook could create a map that tracks the location of every policymaker and their aides, every journalist and every business leader that has installed the Facebook app, tracking them worldwide in every country and watch them travel around the world, having a global intelligence map rivaling that of the NSA. Even heads of state that use secure phones without Facebook installed are trailed by a phalanx of aides with personal phones who likely do have Facebook installed.
In the end, as we condemn repressive regimes around the world for secret surveillance and realtime location tracking of their dissidents, it is becoming increasingly clear that Facebook may be the worst offender of them all.