META – A new frontier for the surveillance state and online crime
On October 28, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced the introduction of Meta, which “brings together our apps and technologies under one new company brand.” According to Facebook’s website the intention of Meta is to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities, and grow businesses.
The metaverse has various definitions. It was originally coined in a 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interacted with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that used the metaphor of the real world. The elements of the Mark Zuckerberg’s proposed metaverse include videoconferencing, games, email, virtual reality, social media and live streaming.
The ambition to create a new collectivizing platform in which significant forms of online interaction are enmeshed should be a cause of concern for two primary reasons. First, it has the real potential to exacerbate vulnerability to unlawful government and nongovernment violations of privacy. Second, it creates new platforms for online criminal activity.
In relation to the invasion of privacy, Facebook and other social media platforms are regularly used by law enforcement for collection of user information in furtherance of regulatory and criminal investigations. This incudes text posts/comments/chats, likes, images, friend lists, and online groups. Setting aside that which is publicly available, law enforcement agencies in Canada can obtain large swaths of information contained in a social media or other online platform either by making a formal request through the United States or applying for a Production Order in Canada. The Alberta Court of Appeal is about to hear a case on the issue of whether a Canadian Court can issue a Production Order in relation to an overseas company. According to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, this is allowed. The BC ruling appears to contradict established and binding Supreme Court of Canada case law in this regard.
The United States has been a focal point for various invasions of privacy by state actors. For close to a decade the Department of Homeland Security was improperly using a specific administrative subpoena - an order for subscriber information issued by a federal agency without prior judicial oversight – in relation to criminal investigations. The actual purpose of the administrative subpoenas in question was to investigate customs/importation tariff disputes. The issue was brought to a head during the Trump Presidency when the Department of Homeland Security issued such a subpoena to obtain the subscriber information of an anti-Trump Twitter user. A civilian oversight body concluded that use of such subpoenas in that context was not in accordance with the statute or practice. Even after this took place, Canadian authorities relied on the fruits of these subpoenas in support of criminal investigations in Canada.
As highlighted by defence lawyer Clayton Rice's blog, law enforcement agencies in the United States have recently been obtaining keyword search warrants requiring Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to produce personally identifiable information about users who searched for a particular term or 'keyword' during a specific period of time. On July 26, 2019, a technology journalist by the name of Alex Hern revealed that Apple had hired outside contractors to review recordings made by Siri devices and that many recordings were made without the knowledge of the individuals recorded.
The surveillance of internet activity of citizens by law enforcement is not without justifications, both good and bad. The proliferation of online child exploitation, terrorism, international drug operations, and complex frauds has increased extensively with the aid of social media platforms. There is a strong public interest in the investigation and prosecution of those involved in such activities. Social media data tracking can also assist in the management of natural disasters and public health emergencies. At the same time, governments throughout the world have used social media to track and attempt to persecute protestors as well as suppress free speech.
Nongovernmental social profiling used by companies such as Facebook creates targeted advertisements, assigning specific ones to specific age groups, gender groups, and even ethnicities. In order to increase profitability applications like Facebook examine and market personal information by logging data through cookies (small files that stockpile the data on someone's device). Facebook likes, posts and images are of high value to marketers. Other nongovernmental groups and individuals use social media platforms to promote hate speech and engage in targeted harassment.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement by Facebook of the introduction of Meta comes amid whistleblower leaked documents and concerns relating to the societal impact of Facebook’s platforms. According to Frances Haugen – former Facebook data scientist turned whistle-blower – Facebook and its related interfaces such as Instagram harms children, furthers division and undermines democracy in pursuit of growth and profits.
This was not the first controversy to hit Facebook. For example, Facebook was linked to Russian attempts to influence the 2016 USA election. There was also the poor management of user data in the Cambridge Analytica case. In the Cambridge Analytica case, the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users were acquired via the 270,000 Facebook users who used a Facebook app called "This Is Your Digital Life." By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app access to information on the user's friends network. As a result, the data of about 87 million users, the majority of whom had not given Cambridge Analytica permission to access their data, was collected.
The frequency of cybersecurity breaches over the past years have gradually been outmatched by their severe consequences. For instance, an Israeli LGBT-focused dating service was recently one of the many websites targeted by Iranian linked hackers on an internet hosting company. As a new or consolidated platform, Meta presents the innovative and technologically savvy criminal with any number of opportunities to perpetrate and conceal criminal activity. History often repeats itself and there is no lack of ingenuity in modern crime.
The Canadian government plans to introduce legislation this year to regulate social media companies, with a focus on online hate and harassment. Governments around the world have become aware of the harm that cybersecurity and privacy breaches can cause.
Rather than playing catchup with technology as it is implemented, stronger laws, government bodies, and civilian oversight should exist to regulate the technology before it reaches the public. Members of the public, particularly youth, should be educated about the risks to their privacy and the use of online platforms. The culture of online users sharing every personal experience, thought, opinion, and image - while appealing to human psychology and those who wish to exploit it - has significant ramifications for individual privacy and well being, as well as the public at large.