Is It Social Media or Corporate Surveillance? Facebook’s Business Model

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: September 4, 2018 ~

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies Before Congress on April 10, 2018 on His Company's Technology Failings

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies Before Congress on April 10, 2018

It’s time to ask this question: is Facebook wearing the friendly façade of a social media company while actually operating as a high tech citizen surveillance center? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first a look at what an actual citizen surveillance center looks like in New York City.

In 2012 we broke the story that the intrepid CBS investigative program, 60 Minutes, had aired a fawning piece on the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center. That center is a high tech surveillance center built with over $150 million in taxpayers’ money that uses thousands of spy cameras owned by Wall Street banks together with thousands more owned by the New York City Police Department to spy on millions of law-abiding citizens in lower Manhattan. Data feeds from the cameras are routed to a central computer in the center where individuals can be zoomed in on and tracked without a warrant for probable cause.

We called out 60 Minutes in our article for being aware, but failing to report, that the surveillance center was being staffed with security officials from Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase along with NYPD officers. (All three of the mega Wall Street banks were heavily implicated in the frauds that led to the epic financial collapse of 2008. Citigroup and JPMorgan pleaded guilty to criminal felony counts brought by the U.S. Justice Department in later years for financial crimes unrelated to the collapse.)

In a 2006 report on the lower Manhattan camera surveillance network, the New York Civil Liberties Union noted that “Today’s surveillance camera is not merely the equivalent of a pair of eyes. It has super human vision. It has the capability to zoom in and ‘read’ the pages of the book you have opened while waiting for a train in the subway.” The report further explained that “New York City has a long and troubled history of police surveillance of individuals and groups engaged in lawful political protest and dissent. Between 1904 and 1985 the NYPD compiled some one million intelligence files on more than 200,000 individuals and groups — suspected communists, Vietnam War protesters, health and housing advocates, education reform groups, and civil rights activists.” Indeed, the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center came in handy during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

What this Orwellian public-private partnership is doing with surveillance in the bowels of lower Manhattan is not that different from what Facebook is doing on a dramatically larger scale from its sprawling campus in Menlo Park, California.

In the August 17, 2017 London Review of Books, John Lanchester explained how Facebook is digitally amassing massive amounts of information on you. Lanchester writes:

“Facebook already had a huge amount of information about people and their social networks and their professed likes and dislikes. After waking up to the importance of monetisation, they added to their own data a huge new store of data about offline, real-world behaviour, acquired through partnerships with big companies such as Experian, which have been monitoring consumer purchases for decades via their relationships with direct marketing firms, credit card companies, and retailers. There doesn’t seem to be a one-word description of these firms: ‘consumer credit agencies’ or something similar about sums it up. Their reach is much broader than that makes it sound, though.? Experian says its data is based on more than 850 million records…

“So Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere…”

Facebook’s business model is to surveil your online activities, put that data in its database; harvest more data from companies like Experian, and build an intricate profile of you to sell to advertisers. (Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook “has asked large U.S. banks to share detailed financial information about their customers, including card transactions and checking-account balances, as part of an effort to offer new services to users.”  Two of the banks mentioned, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, are also staffing the lower Manhattan surveillance center.)

Lancaster explains Facebook’s advertising strategy like this:

“The ads work on two models. In one of them, advertisers ask Facebook to target consumers from a particular demographic – our thirty-something bourbon-drinking country music fan, or our African American in Philadelphia who was lukewarm about Hillary. But Facebook also delivers ads via a process of online auctions, which happen in real time whenever you click on a website. Because every website you’ve ever visited (more or less) has planted a cookie on your web browser, when you go to a new site, there is a real-time auction, in millionths of a second, to decide what your eyeballs are worth and what ads should be served to them, based on what your interests, and income level and whatnot, are known to be. This is the reason ads have that disconcerting tendency to follow you around, so that you look at a new telly or a pair of shoes or a holiday destination, and they’re still turning up on every site you visit weeks later…

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.”

This coming Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will convene a hearing dubbed as “Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are expected to appear to testify. Google’s co-founder, Larry Page, and CEO Sundar Pichai, were invited to testify but have not yet confirmed if either will attend.

But Russia and other foreign actors are not the only threats to weaponizing “social” media’s data vaults to undermine U.S. elections. As we reported last week at CounterPunch, Koch Industries, the fossil fuels conglomerate, now owns a sprawling voter data harvesting operation called i360 and is selling the platform to state Republican parties and individual Republican candidates running in this year’s election. i360 lists Facebook as one of its digital advertising partners. Let’s hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee has the intel on i360 and the guts to ask why a multi-national fossil fuels conglomerate has inserted itself into U.S. elections in this way.

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