[pullquote]Reliable and secure Facebook …[can enable one to] register for a degree course, open up a bank account, or even apply for job simply by using Facebook credentials[/pullquote].
Last month Facebook released statistics of requests made by Governments globally with US topping the list of total requests made at 12,000 requests for some 22,000 Facebook user accounts. We analyzed the statistics especially from Africa which had only four Governments making requests and concluded that African Governments are Facebook illiterate. Facebook provided information on several user accounts especially those that were related to kidnapping and robberies. Although privacy experts have termed such release of information to Governments as infringement on user privacy, I think, still, the use of social media can be of great help in 1. Profiling citizens and 2. Fighting crime and terrorism.
I will shortly describe how Facebook can be of greater help to Governments in regards to citizenry profiling and fight against crime and terrorism but let us first have a look at Privacy.
Social media users have cried foul on how Facebook and Google treat the ‘private information’ the user shares with them. But what constitute private information? Facebook for instance uses target ads to generate its revenue. It profiles users based on location, schooling, work, photos, liked pages, interests and hobbies, and how the user generally interacts with Facebook in order to generate ads thought to interest the user. However, information shared by the user will only be practically visible to those that have been allowed access by the user; mostly being the user’s friends. The user here retains the discretion of controlling access to information. Practical life however has it that most users share ‘classified’ information with friends (I mean strangers) as they do not want to take the time to use the privacy tools provided by Facebook and others.
Facebook’s primary role is to connect an individual to his/her network of friends and not a platform for meeting new people. I do not think that we should blame Facebook for sharing your private information with strangers if in the first place you are the one who accepted the stranger into your private network. And as such, if there is any information e.g. photos that you have uploaded to Facebook or Twitter or Google+, then it should be taken that you indeed wanted that information to be in public domain. Information uploaded online is henceforth a public information and not a private one. At this point I would advise, if you have any information you want to save online and still be able to consider it as private information, then use your email or cloud storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox.
Facebook user profiles and Government requests
Facebook allows an individual to create a user account that the individual uses to interact with other Facebook users and Facebook products. Since Facebook requires as much information as possible from a user for revenue purposes, it has created numerous fields that it wants a user to fill in when registering. As mentioned earlier, an individual has the discretion to control the type of information he/she will share with others. But Facebook will still be able to use the information shared to send to the user appropriate ads without disclosing the content of the information to third parties (much has been discussed about this but I hold the view that Facebook does not need to share the actual content of information to third parties for target ads to work).
Given the ease with which people share privileged information on Facebook, Governments have found it useful to request Facebook for information that might help with different kinds of investigations. Privacy experts have faulted Facebook for agreeing to share information with Governments, but it should be brought to the attention of everyone that Governments and individuals have a right, through court orders, to obtain information from sources such as mobile service providers regarding a subscriber’s call history. In realization of the importance of information about subscribers collected by mobile service providers, several Governments, including Kenya, have enacted and implemented laws requiring subscribers to register their names, ID numbers, and physical addresses with the service providers. For the same reasons that mobile service providers are required to register subscribers, Facebook in particular should require users to officially register to enhance fight against crime and terrorism. My pick on Facebook is based on the fact that it is the single largest entity that has detailed and privileged information on over 2% of the World’s population, and is able to exapnd this reach to over 50% of world’s population in the ‘near’ future (of course that is if Internet.org works –see Not yet time for Internet.org for a critical look at the project).
Facebook registration criteria
Currently there is only one important requirement for anyone to open a Facebook account; an email address or a phone number. This requirement has led to a proliferation of ‘Fake’ Facebook accounts that is estimated to be at 76 million according to an article by Businessinsider.com. To eradicate these fake accounts, the only sure way is to ask every user to verify his/her account by uploading official Government identification documents like IDs, DLs, passports, etc; a strategy already in place when retrieving a Facebook account due to forgotten password or as a result of account misuse that will necessitate verification of account ownership.
To effectively eliminate fake user accounts now and in the future, Facebook should simultaneously request current users to verify their accounts using official document and implement the use of official documents for registering new users. New users will therefore be required not only to provide an email address and (not or) a phone number but also a scanned copy of an official Government identification document. This will have two major implications; that only Government registered citizens are on Facebook and Facebook will experience drastic decline in growth. The second implication means Facebook would not easily implement stringent registration requirements but since I believe Facebook as become indispensable part of social life, users will have no option but to comply. A friend of mine whose Facebook account was hacked decided to upload his passport to retrieve the account, despite having vowed to be able to do discard Facebook in his life. Several others deactivate their Facebook accounts only to ‘peep-in’ at least once every day.
Non-adults could register using birth certificates.
Use of Facebook Information
If Facebook considers registering users as suggested, then Governments could go a step further to ensure every citizen has a Facebook account. Facebook will then be able to help Governments provide accurate demographic data with potential of eliminating the need to do actual head count every ten years. Information on Facebook will also be reliable, just as information provided by mobile service providers, in curbing crimes particularly cyber crime. Users will also feel safer to interact on Facebook as everyone will be assured that cyber criminals are easily identifiable and dealt with. But I must emphasize that access to Facebook information must only be through direct court orders just as is done with telecoms related data.
Reliable and secure Facebook has many useful applications that could make life easier. For example, an individual could register for a degree course, open up a bank account, or even apply for job simply by using Facebook credentials.
I hope that by implementing such a stringent registration criteria, Governments (especially the US Government) would stop the uncivilized surveillance methods where they are said to be live-monitoring some accounts even as the user types!