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How social media espionage is carried out

The social media goldmine

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Digit magazine, before Cambridge Analytica’s alleged misuse of Facebook data was made public by a whistleblower.

Everybody who’s anybody is using a social media platform. If anything, nowadays it’s almost mandatory to be on some social media platform or the other because of various reasons. For one thing, it’s convenient. One place to keep track of all your friends, be aware of events around you, and some even use social media as their primary source of news. Another attractive attribute of these platforms is the reward mechanism associated with getting reactions from your near and dear ones after posting updates. On the flip side of the coin, there are the more serious uses of social media. Some jobs require you to be on them, and others track your social media profiles as a means of evaluation. You could actually not get that job you wanted if your employers aren’t happy with that last post you just had to share.

But we’re digressing. The point is – just about anybody with access to a computing device and the internet, is on social media. So many billions of users in a single space constantly updating the world with their day-to-day activities. We’re sure you can already see why this is incredibly convenient for governments and other tracking organisations. As of the end of 2017, Facebook had a whopping 2.07 billion monthly active users, and that’s just Facebook.

Tracking on steroids

Your social media accounts and online trackers record every aspect of your life, your conversations, your purchases, your photos. People who frequently upload photos are literally telling the world exactly where they are at that particular time. Everything you do leaves behind a trail of data which governments and other organisations are keen to lap up – especially due to its enormous potential and ready availability for various use cases. Thanks to this continuous stream of data everybody generates all the time, it is incredibly easy for organisations to keep track of people at large.

So many possibilities…

Now you may be wondering, aren’t there privacy laws in place to prevent organisations from tracking you? Well, you’re right. There are. In most parts of the world anyway. However, that doesn’t stop most organisations from secretly gathering insane amounts of data from social media anyway. Just look at the Snowden NSA leaks. One of the revelations made by Snowden was the existence of PRISM, which legally compelled tech giants like Google, Facebook, Apple etc to provide the NSA with data if they requested it.

Knowing you better than yourself

Social media platforms like Facebook prompt you to constantly keep updating it with information. Since they’ve got such a large database with information from so many sources, it’s come to the point where Facebook can actually predict information about you even before you post it. Be it your political inclination, your sexual orientation, your race, Facebook can predict all of this even if you don’t tell it, just based off of your “likes”.

Cambridge Analytica, a company that sells marketing campaigns to corporations and political parties, is one one of the leaders in the space of using the data from social media platforms. By tracking the posts liked by users, the company can build “psychographic profiles” of the users. These profiles allow the companies to understand the main personality traits of the users, known as the Five Factor Model. These traits are an openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. By tracking just three hundred likes, companies such as Cambridge Analytica can understand you better than your closest friends or family. More likes and they can know you better than you know yourself. Building the models allows delivering targeted messages that can manipulate user behaviour. Fashion houses, NGOs and newspapers have all purchased the services of Cambridge Analytica. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson all used the services of Cambridge Analytica for their campaigns during the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Facebook is constantly collecting data on you. If you even visit a website that has the Facebook “Like” button on it, Facebook knows. Evidently, people are used to this. They’re used to display every aspect of themselves on social media. Psychologists say it’s easier to determine if a person is suffering from mental ailments such as depression by looking at their social media profiles as against meeting them in person. This is because the posts can reveal information that the person does not disclose.

The PRISM logo from an internal document

The capabilities of social media profiling are extensive. Thanks to something like PRISM, companies can give all this information away without your knowledge or permission. Even though, technically, it isn’t legal.

The alternative? You have to be sneaky when tracking. If they’re sneaky and you don’t know they’re tracking you, you won’t ask. One such sneaky method is via third-party apps that use Facebook. Logging into anything that asks you to “Log in with Facebook” means you’re giving that app permission to track you. This even happens indirectly, like for example, if you log into an app with Facebook, that app (say, a game on Facebook for example) now has access to your friends’ list and has a database of those Facebook accounts as well. What do these third-party apps do with that information? Well.

How it’s done

Let’s take a look at a country where it is legal. China for example. In China, there are no laws which guarantee the privacy of its citizens. In fact, it’s the complete opposite, the law is all about allowing the government to keep track and monitor its people.

You may have already known this, but in China, popular western websites such as Google and Facebook are either completely banned or heavily restricted. Instead, they have something called WeChat. WeChat is basically a Facebook/WhatsApp hybrid app developed by Tencent, a Chinese tech company. We’ve already established that such platforms collect data about its users, but in China, the government can legally monitor this data.

Another such platform is Weibo, (not Weeaboo, a completely different thing that) which is often dubbed the Chinese Twitter. This, like WeChat, is also monitored.

WeChat is basically a Facebook/WhatsApp hybrid app developed by Tencent

The government’s control over these local platforms is vast, they can censor words and silence opposition without repercussion. Words and phrases that are associated with Tibet and the opposition party are censored on WeChat. They can prevent things like violent protests and planned demonstrations from happening by monitoring these platforms.

In the west, it’s the latter that’s cited as a reason for wanting to surveil social media. Organisations and governments want to be able to predict when things like protests, or even terrorist attacks might happen. In America, especially post 9/11, the CIA has doubled down on social media tracking.

The argument of security vs privacy has been going on for a while now, but we’re seeing that slowly, we’re losing out on privacy for convenience. While the west still has strong support for privacy, looming fear over riots, protests, and terrorist attacks could pave the way for a world where everything you do is tracked and there will be nothing you can do about it.

Manish Rajesh

Manish Rajesh