The social media giant misleads the American people using tactics ripped straight from the surveillance agency
Once again, Facebook is embroiled in a scandal where it was caught violating millions of people's privacy. A blockbuster story published by the New York Times before the holidays revealed that Facebook had entered into secret "partnerships" with various technology companies -- Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify, and others -- that gave hundreds of internet giants vast access to private information for years without Facebook users' consent.
As the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal succinctly put it, "Facebook didn't sell your data; it gave it away."
With Congress now embroiled in a government shutdown, it's still unclear how it will all play out. But Facebook's tactics -- both how it evades oversight from government regulators and how it has misled journalists and the American public -- eerily resembles the culprit in this decade's other major privacy scandal: the National Security Agency (NSA).
In hiding what it was doing from its users and in the underhanded ways it has justified its invasive actions after the fact, Facebook seems to have drawn directly from the NSA's playbook.
Here's exactly what that looks like.Redefine Words Until They Hold No Meaning
For years, one of the NSA's most effective methods for avoiding public accountability was to redefine common English without explicitly telling anyone. Words like "surveillance" would be defined so narrowly as to lose all meaning, and phrases like "relevant to an investigation" would be expanded so greatly as to encompass everything. (Read this compendium of the NSA's dictionary put together by the ACLU for a full explanation.)
Facebook reportedly leaned on redefining one key phrase to escape scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the agency's supposed regulatory powers: "service provider."
As the Times explained, Facebook has been under a consent decree with the FTC since 2012, when the agency reprimanded the social media giant for violating users' privacy. Facebook was at least supposed to follow strict rules about when and why it could not share users' data with others. But as the Times reported, Facebook relied on quietly redefining "service provider" to get everything it wanted.