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Big Brother Facebook is Watching You

I deactivated my Facebook account a month ago.1


‘Big Brother is watching you’, was the ominous, continual and distressing warning of the powers-in-charge to citizens of George Orwell’s dystopian, totalitarian state Oceania in his novel 1984.  Big Brother watched your every move, in buildings and in the streets, everywhere – even in your house where they had cameras in every room to monitor your thought and action.  Writing in 1948, George Orwell got it right.  Today, Big Brother is indeed watching you.  It is watching you wherever you are with a breadth of surveillance that Orwell could not have foreseen.  Big Brother has a few names today.  One of them is called Facebook.  Facebook is watching over two billion active users of its service around the world, most of whom do not realise the amplitude and depth to which they are being surveilled.2  Its ecosystem is a powerful ‘nation-state’ in itself.3  Some users are not liking it one bit and are deleting their accounts in droves, including prominent business icons like Elon Musk.  They’re getting out of the devil’s bargain they have with Facebook.  I am one of them.  But even those off Facebook are not out of its reach as the company has information on people who do not sign up to the service.  By means of advanced technology and artificial intelligence, Facebook builds a picture of non-users through references to them by its active users (creating ‘shadow profiles’).  In addition, it appears that Facebook is able to track your on-line activity even after you have logged off the service.  This is chilling indeed.


How did Facebook come to command such vast power over our private data?  Primarily through the ignorance of its users, and by legislation lagging technology.  Technology and the internet developed at too rapid a rate into areas that legislation did not cover, or perhaps the new technology environment allowed for the breach of existing laws in unconventional ways not yet legally apparent.  The law, being ponderous and bureaucratic, is only now catching up to Facebook and Co’s intrusion into our life and their capacity to influence aspects of it.  After Cambridge Analytica compromised the data of 87 million Facebook users for alleged political purposes, politicians the world over took notice.  This led to a train of events that made Mark Zuckerberg (33), the CEO and one of the founders of Facebook, voluntarily agree to testify before both houses of the United States Legislature.4,5  His testimony to the Senate took place on Tuesday 11th April 2018, followed by his testimony to the House of Representatives on the following day.  Zuckerberg’s testimony was covered live on television, most of which I watched, riveted.

Mark Zuckerberg Testifies 1- Bloomberg TV


The first thing to notice was that Zuckerberg dropped his trademark grey T-shirt and hoodies for a suit and tie.  The geeky Millennial image that serves him so well in the internet world would not cut it before the Baby Boomer legislators he was to face, most of them old enough to be his father.  Welcome to the conventional world, Mr Zuckerberg.  The second thing was his attitude.  There was neither swagger nor condescension, just a seemingly contrite, mea culpa – mea culpa, deferential, open demeanour that I must say, served him well.  It is difficult for the likes of Zuckerberg to turn on the charm offensive, but he tried and possibly even succeeded.

Mark Zuckerberg Testifies 2 – Bloomberg TV

In his testimony before the senate, Zuckerberg sat at a table with senior members of his team behind him.  Each senator had four minutes in which to question him.  The senators were formal, collegiate, concerned, but dozens of them seemed not to understand the basic functioning of Facebook.  At one stage Zuckerberg had to tell Senator Orrin Hatch that Facebook makes money by running advertisements.6  Zuckerberg played this gallery well.  He more than once referred to ‘how he had started Facebook in his dorm room’, and that ‘Facebook was in an arms race with Russia’, notions which must have endeared him to the American senators’ values of free enterprise and geopolitical power, which they understand better than this Brave New Tech World.  And Zuckerberg’s success story, if not his person, really awes.7  Despite that, the bewildering power of Facebook must have slowly dawned on them.  Facebook isn’t a mere platform for connecting the world or the sharing of holiday pics with ‘friends’.  It is a potential force for large-scale manipulation and mind-control.


Facebook Financial Success story – revenue and earnings


Some of the senators nonetheless got it.  One of them held up a 300+ page printed contract to which users automatically agree when they click to join Facebook.  Another read a Facebook legal clause out aloud, then said he did not understand it despite being a lawyer.  Studies have shown that hardly anyone reads the terms-of-service when they join an internet site.8  In a mock invasion of Zuckerberg’s privacy, senator Dick Durbin of Illinois probed his personal activities, asking him whether he would be willing to openly share the name of the Washington hotel in which he was staying.  Zuckerberg refused (to general laughter), but the point was made.  Near the end of the Senate’s marathon interview of Mark Zuckerberg, Senator Kamala Harris took the dais.  “I am concerned about how much Facebook values trust and transparency—if we agree that a critical component of a relationship of trust and transparency is that we speak truth and we get to the truth….  During the course of this hearing, these last four hours, you have been asked several critical questions for which you don’t have answers…  Those questions have included whether Facebook can track a user’s browsing activity even after the user has logged off of Facebook.  Whether Facebook can track your activity across devices even when you are not logged into Facebook.  Who is Facebook’s biggest competition?  Whether Facebook may store up to 96 categories of users’ information…” etc.

Facebook Share Price since inception – US Dollars

The following day in the House of Representatives, the questions cut closer to the issues. The House of Representatives was generally less deferential to the Facebook chief executive.  A few of the congressmen were tech-savvy.  Lawmakers repeatedly interrupted Zuckerberg and chided him for not answering questions to their satisfaction.  He did indeed appear evasive at times – there was a lot of ‘I’ll get back to you’ on questions to which they suspected he should have had the answers.  Zuckerberg defended a few of Facebook’s data practises by implying they better exploited served its users.  The lawmakers were primarily concerned with privacy, political interference in elections and the use of Facebook for illegal activities.  Well into the second day’s hearing, Congressman Billy Long from Missouri warned Zuckerberg that “Congress is good at two things: doing nothing, and overreacting. So far, we’ve done nothing on Facebook… We’re getting ready to overreact.”


It’s about time too.  One feels that heavy regulation is coming to Facebook and its ilk. To rely on their self-regulation is laughable.  The good news is that the Europeans are one step ahead.  The European General Data Protection Regulation, adopted in April 2016, will supersede the Data Protection Directive and will be enforceable starting on 25 May 2018.  There are seven principles governing the recommendations for protection of personal data and amendments thereto.9  This should go a long way to ensuring the safeguarding and privacy of one’s personal data, but will once adopted, only be binding in the European Union.


As for me, what will make me trust Facebook again?  First, I must be sure that my personal data is not used without my consent in any way.  There must be a cohesive, panoptic page in clear language where I opt-in to give them permission for each level of intrusion into my privacy, by clicking on each item in turn.  They must collect only those categories of data I give them permission to collect.  I want nothing of the current ‘opting-out’ of a general agreement, where they start by having full access and I switch off aspects of it in some obscure part of my account, thereby giving me a deluded sense of control ‘full control’.  I want to know that my data is absolutely safe.  I do not want to be manipulated by Facebook favouring slants for parties or causes to which it is sympathetic, whether overt or subliminal.  It has the power to do that and has been accused of as much in Congress.


For the moment, my Facebook account remains deactivated.  The way I’m feeling today, I’m leaning towards totally deleting my account.  It was difficult enough deactivating it.  I had to field questions as to why I wanted to deactivate my account.  Did I feel addicted to Facebook?  Did I have privacy issues? etc.  I was then given the option of going off-line for a few hours to a maximum of six days to cure me of whatever ill befell me about Facebook.  Thank you!  When I opted to deactivate more permanently, a slimy conscience-pricking blackmail message popped up:  Your tenuous social media connections friends are going to miss you!!!


Yeah, right.  But Facebook is going to miss me more.  Not that the world cares much about what I think of Facebook.  For you see, over the two days that Zuckerberg testified, Facebook’s share price steadily crept up, rising by over 5%.10  Zuckerberg was winning the battle.

Facebook share price around the days that Mr Zuckerberg testifies (5-day chart)

The financial markets were approving.  It’s OK, they were saying.  Big Brother can pry, and prey, on you.




Notes: (to Big Brother Facebook)


  1. Note that I have merely deactivated my account, not deleted it. This means Facebook still has my data.  To delete my account, I must re-activate it first, then find out where to delete it.  Facebook has promised to erase the complete data of any user who deletes their account.  There is even a movement #deletefacebook that is gaining momentum.  On their website, they give you a button that takes you directly to the area in your Facebook account that allows you to delete it…  See https://deletefacebook.com/
  2. Facebook was the first social media to have more than a billion users and today has more than 2.12 billion active users. An active user is defined as someone who has logged at least once onto a service in the past thirty days.  See https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/.  Note that there are 7.6 billion people on this planet, of which 26% are aged 0-14 according to World Bank statistics.  If all users are individuals, this means that 37.8% of all people over 14 are on Facebook.  But let’s adjust the number of individual users downwards for fake accounts and business accounts etc. to a mere 1.5 billion.  This would take the reach of Facebook to over a quarter of the adults in the world, truly sweeping.
  3. For some intriguing facts about Facebook, see https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/47-facebook-statistics/. As at December 2017, Facebook reported a net operating profit after tax of USD 15.619 billion, generated from USD 40.653 billion of revenue.  The company has no debt and has yet to pay a dividend since its listing in 2012.  Mark Zuckerberg owns 8 424 571 Facebook Inc-A shares and 391 842 180 Facebook Inc-B shares.  He in effect owns and controls Facebook (source: Bloomberg).
  4. ‘The United States Senate is the upper chamber of the United States Congress, which along with the United States House of Representatives—the lower chamber—comprise the legislature of the United States. A legislature is a deliberative assembly with the authority to make laws for a political entity such as a country or city.  The Senate is composed of senators, each of whom represents a single state in its entirety, with each state being equally represented by two senators, regardless of its population, serving staggered terms of six years; with 50 states currently in the Union, there are 100 U.S. Senators… [ ] who are today popularly elected…As the upper house, the Senate has several powers of

    advice and consent which are unique to it [ ]  The Senate is widely considered both a more deliberative and more prestigious body than the House of Representatives due to its longer terms, smaller size and state-wide constituencies, which historically led to a more collegial and less partisan  The Lower House is composed of Representatives who sit in congressional districts that are allocated to each of the 50 states on a basis of population as measured by the U.S. Census, with each district entitled to one representative.  Since its inception in 1789, all Representatives have been directly elected.  The Lower House is charged with the passage of federal legislation, known as bills, which, after concurrence by the Senate, are sent to the President for consideration.  In addition to this basic power, the Lower House has certain exclusive powers which include the power to initiate all bills related to revenue, the impeachment of federal officers etc.’ (source Wikipedia).  They therefore have the power to legislate against Facebook, hence Zuckerberg’s ‘voluntary’ appearance before them.

  5. Mark Zuckerberg testified willingly (i.e. he was not subpoenaed). He spent a day in each chamber, fielding around six hundred questions in ten hours.
  6. Facebook makes money through powerful targeted An example:  Facebook is able to target the potential clients of a yoga studio in Johannesburg who live say within a radius of 5km from it, belonging to a specific demographic and earn above a certain putative minimum threshold.  That is power.  Some employers are said to consult the Facebook data of possible future employees in their screening process.  Imagine if there’s something silly about you in the data – a totally out-of-character once-off event?  How might that affect your chances of employment?  Huge corporations are some of Facebook’s biggest clients, including Ford, Nike, HSBC, MacDonald’s, Visa, Starbucks, Disney etc.
  7. Mark Zuckerberg is the fifth richest man on the planet, according to Forbes. His personal wealth is estimated at USD 71 billion as at 14 April 2018.  See https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/
  8. You can consent with a click, but it is nigh-impossible to read the contracts thoroughly: Fact 1:  Reading an average American’s digital contracts would take almost 250 hours a year.  That burden, if anyone took it seriously, would be exhausting.  Fact 2:  A study by Jonathan Obar of York University in Toronto and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch of the University of Connecticut, confirmed, in an experiment, that hundreds of college students tapped the big green “Join” button to become members of ‘NameDrop’, a new fictitious social network.  According to paragraph 2.3.1 of the terms of service, they’d agreed to give ‘NameDrop’ their future first-born children.  The biggest lie on the Internet is that people read the fine print of the contract to which they are consenting – they do not.  See https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/03/terms-of-service-online-contracts-fine-print
  9. For more detail on the imminent European data protection legislation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_Protection_Directive
  10. The Facebook share price rose from 157.93 USD to 166.32 USD per share over the two days that Zuckerberg testified, an increase of 5.31%, easily outperforming the market over that period. In effect, as the testimony unfolded, the market was assessing that the damage expected to the company’s earnings from potential legislation was not as bad as reflected in the share price at the outset of the testimony.  It must be said that the Facebook share price had retreated well off its 01 February 2018 intraday high of USD 195.32 after the Cambridge Analytica story broke (source https://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/fb/historical).