WMDs: Weapons of Mass Distraction

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”– George Orwell

Facebook is an insanely popular online social networking site that allows 20 million users to upload pictures of themselves and can include information about their favorite music, books, movies, their address, phone number, e-mail, clubs, jobs, educational history, hobbies, sexual orientation and even political affiliations.

Facebook attracts on average 80 percent of a given university’s undergraduate population. However, there are some questions raised regarding privacy concerns on the site, and when some “soul searching” is done to find out who is really behind the site’s management, there are far more disturbing questions than enlightening answers.

The first venture capital money to come into Facebook, a cool half million clams worth, came from venture capitalist Peter Thiel, founder and former CEO of Paypal. A Stanford graduate and former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Thiel is author of the book “The Diversity Myth,” an anti-multicultural argument which received praise from notable neo-conservatives such as William Kristol. Thiel is on the board of the uber-radical conservative group VanguardPAC.

Further funding came in the form of $12.7 million from venture capital firm Accel Partners. Accel’s manager James Breyer was former chair of the National Venture Capital Association (NVAC). Breyer served on NVAC’s board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency (that’s right, I said the See-Eye-Friggin’-A)in 1999. This firm works in various aspects of information technology and intelligence, including most notably “nurturing data mining technologies.”

Breyer has also served on the board of BBN Technologies, a research and development firm known for spearheading the ARPANET, or what we know today as the Internet. In October of 2004, Dr. Anita Jones climbed on board, becoming a part of a firm packed with leaders from other areas of Silicon Valley’s venture capital community, including none other than Gilman Louie.

But what is most startling is Dr. Jones’ experience prior to joining BBN.Jones herself served on the Board of Directors for In-Q-Tel and was previously the Director of Defense Research and Engineering for the US Department of Defense. Her responsibilities included serving as an advisor to the Secretary of Defense and overseeing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).While the nearly $13 million that came from Accel to fund Facebook certainly looks suspicious (and ultimately disturbing after reviewing all of this information), the only problem on the surface seems to be the appearance of some incestuous relationships between the Pentagon, the CIA, and these venture capital firms.

But, as they say, looks can be deceiving. DARPA shot to national fame, or should I say infamy, in 2002 when John Markoff of the New York Times announced the existence of the “Information Awareness Office.” According to Wikipedia, “the IAO has the stated mission to gather as much information as possible about everyone, in a centralized location, for easy perusal by the United States government, including (though not limited to) Internet activity, credit card purchase histories, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, medical records, educational transcripts, driver’s licenses, utility bills, tax returns, and any other available data.”

Protests came from civil libertarians on both the right and the left who saw the IAO as a new Orwellian arm of the United States government. After Congress investigated DARPA’s project, funding was cut off and IAO was essentially dead in the water. The Information Awareness Office might have survived some of its original purposes in a mutated form, found in today’s Facebook. In fact, one of IAO’s original example technologies included “human network analysis and behavior model building engines,” a surprising echo of the social networking mapping that Facebook does using SVG visualizations. Add that to the information that Facebook collects and compare it to the startlingly similar goal of the IAO.

It appears at first glance that DoD, along with the CIA, has managed to circumvent its previous Congressionally-established limitations to find corporate sponsorship for its programs under the thin veil of a useful social network for unwitting college students.The “Privacy Policy” of Facebook includes a statement saying that they “may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship.”

It goes on to say that, “We may be required to disclose customer information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law or to protect our interests or property. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies.”

Some of the aspects of the privacy policy are downright creepy and confusing. This particular gem is especially disturbing: “Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience. By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to, and processed in, the United States.”

While I realize that this conspiracy theory is venturing into the my brother’s-friend’s-sister’s-roommate’s-cousin Ray Ray territory, it can’t be denied that Facebook’s CIA links are somewhat disturbing. And It’s not just Facebook that threatens your privacy.

America Online recently stated that users of their instant messaging service AIM “waive any right to privacy,” meaning AOL reserves the right to republish any AIM conversation at any time. Furthermore, users of the Web site MySpace.com have reported that certain comments and profiles have recently been censored. Not-so coincidentally, MySpace was purchased by Rupert Murdoch, owner of a media empire that includes Fox News, around the same time period. 

Your privacy is worth fighting for, especially when the president claims the right to illegally wiretap U.S. citizens and demands that Google give up search records. In the Internet age we cannot afford to assume that our privacy is being respected. As Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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One thought on “WMDs: Weapons of Mass Distraction

  1. Pingback: Julian Assange: Facebook is a “spy machine” for US Intelligence « The Rantings & Ravings Of A (Formerly) Mad Mailman

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