Can You Beat Facebook-NSA?


Facebook has recently begun a trial of its new “graph search engine.” This should scare the living daily lights out of anyone, for the reasons I’ll explain below.

First, a little background on what they mean by graph searching. Graph, as used in this context, does NOT mean a bunch of lines or bars explaining a set of numbers. Rather, it refers to a form of mathematics. Most people would more understand it as a network, where each node of the graph is called a vertex, and the lines, or edges, would refer to a vector or route through the network. Visually it appears as in figure 1 below.

Figure 1.

For those of you who are mathematically and statistically inclined, this is what a “decision tree” looks like. If I assign probabilities to each vertex for a possible outcome, I can then calculate the probability of eventually reaching the final right hand vertex. If I don’t “know” the probabilities, I can useMarkov Chains to figure out what the right distribution is. If I’ve confused you so far with the math mumbo jumbo, stay with me as I give you an example of the usefulness of this approach. Say I want to know what characteristics “terrorists” share in common, without really knowing. So, I might come up with a bunch of things that I think terrorists share in common with each other: such as “likes” Osama bin Laden, writes about (or is a member of an Islamic group), reads various patriot web sites, etc., etc. I can then seed the model and compare it against the cached web and facebook comments of all of my “known” bad guys and have the model converge on a list of the common descriptors. So, in my mini network in figure 1, vertex 1 (the far left one) is you. The far right vertex represents the “known terrorist” convergence. Progressing frorm you, there are two possible attributes (remember, this is simplified) that will move you closer to being a terrorist. Say, you liked Any Rand’s book Anthem or you are an ACLU lawyer. Well, known terrorists like Anthem, so you move to the middle vertex, where there are two more possibilities. In this case you commented negatively about the US government’s drone program, so you advance to the next vertex in the chain. The last vertex represents the fact you have a Muslim friend on facebook; tah dah! You sir (or ma’am) are a “terrorist.”

Now back to Facebook’s graph searching. Say I’m a government agent and I want to find all of the people who “like”, have participated in 2nd Amendment rallies, regularly comment about police brutality and live within my jurisdiction. Yep, graph searching allows the government to do that. Now that Netflix (and a host of other services) allow you to let Netflix post on your facebook page every movie or television show you watch, you can see the aggregation and identification capabilities. Say I’m the Egyptian virtue police and I want to find all of those immodest women out there. Thank you graph search, I can now find all of those women who “checked in” at a certain store who didn’t have their husbands with them…get the rod!

One final note before I leave. This graph search “feature” was more than likely funded via the intelligence community for their and the military’s benefit. They call it “population centric ISR,” ISR being an acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It used to be one had to manually create associations, locations, etc. for intelligence collection; this is called network analysis in the intelligence community and is still done using tools such asAnalyst’s Notebook. Now, facebook (and oh, do you use your facebook id to login to other sites? Tsk. Tsk.) has just turned itself into the biggest intelligence tool in the world. It’s not that they haven’t already been monitoring, they have. Stay safe out there…you know who’s watching!

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