New Facebook Graph Search raises serious human rights and protection concerns

Facebook Graph SearchFacebook has started to roll out a new search that can potentially endanger people who are already being persecuted or are suffering from discrimination. Teaching people how to use Facebook safely needs to become a priority for protection staff and human rights organizations.

The new “Facebook Graph Search” is fundamentally different from the Google search you are used to. Instead of looking for words in documents, the new Facebook Graph Search is looking for relations between people as well as between people and “objects”, where an object can be almost anything: a place, a brand, a hobby or a political ideology.

Downright scary data mining

Facebook Graph Search

Example of a Facebook Graph Search for “Islamic men interest in men who live in Teheran, Iran” by Tom Scott.

Basically, Facebook Graph Search is not so much a search engine, but a massive data mining machine. This can be moderately helpful if you are going on holidays to Paris and you want to know whether there are any “restaurants in Paris that my friends like”. It is immensely useful for marketers who can for target “single women under 30 who have a child and live in Birmingham”. It is downright scary when you realize that you can also look for people who are associated with political parties, ideologies, belong to certain groups or have a certain sexual orientation.

Tom Scott, whom I had the pleasure to meet a couple of years ago at a conference where I spoke, is one of the people who already have access to Facebook Graph Search and he came up with the following searches:

  • “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran and the places where they worked“ and
  • “Family members of people who live in China and like Falun Gong”

Considering that sympathizing with Falun Gong can land you in a labour camp in China and that being gay carries the death penalty in Iran, see these searches let my blood run cold. The Falun Gong-search is particularly sinister because it implicates people who haven’t even “liked” the Falun Gong, but who might be targeted for investigation because their family members abroad have.

Privacy training becomes a necessity

All of this means that being on top of your privacy settings – on any social network – is becoming more and more crucial as data mining techniques are becoming more and more crucial. Of course you can argue that only people who actively say that they “like” [men/Falung Gong/democracy/trade unions/human rights etc] have anything to fear, but that’s just irresponsible. In the same way that human rights organizations and journalists sometimes choose to anonymize the identities of their sources to protect them social networks should also put measures in place that protect people from harm if they accidentally reveal too much. I realize that this would be quite a lot of work, but from a technical point of view it is not necessarily difficult.

In the meantime, any organization that is working with people who are being persecuted or are suffering from discrimination should urgently include social media privacy training into their programmes (I’d be more than happy to write it).

Update 7 February 2013: The New York Times just published a short article with some practical tips to help you protect your privacy on Facebook.

What is your opinion? Is Facebook Graph Search going too far? Is this just the inevitable evolution of technology? Or is it both?

  • http://twitter.com/Bayawi @Bayawi

    Disconcerting, what data-digging techniques one's impulsive or innocent FB likes (ever more often also gained due to different marketing & promo techniques) can serve. Social media privacy training is a good idea. If you happen to write one, or see any related sources out there, I'd be interested!

  • http://www.aab-marketing.com Frank

    I completely agree with your take on this. One can also assume that "liking" something or actively disclosing data is not the only signal that Facebook will use to find out what you like (in the real life sense of the term). I'd be very surprised if Facebook-liking articles on human rights or Facebook-checking-in in venues that are popular in the gay community is not picked up by Facebook and used in the search algorithm, even if it's only as ranking factor what result to display first. If it's not done yet, it is a very plausible possibility that it will be done in the future as we know that Mr Zuckerberg considers that privacy is not a social norm any more. Very scary in deed!