Government Intelligence Agencies Built Facebook, Corporations Adopted it, Both Love Collecting ‘Likes’
May 8, 2014 Lee Arnold
There is a good chance you found this article via Facebook. Perhaps you are one of the 158,000+ who follow the Mysterious Universe page, or you are Facebook friends with one of those 158,000 Facebook users and saw the post because they liked or shared it. Whichever you might be, one thing is certain, you are making it way too easy for the government, and everyone else for that matter, to keep tabs on what you are doing, what you like, websites you visit online, your political leanings, and the friends you keep. In fact, you are using a program allegedly financed by government intelligence agencies and designed for the explicit purpose of gathering information about the public.
“So what? I’ve got nothing to hide,” you might be thinking to yourself right now, oh, but you most certainly do.
There is also a good chance if the government, practically any government, but particularly the United States Government, wants to find out any information about you, like for example where you work, or currently live, so it can find you to recoup those student loans you still owe, or the back taxes you’ve yet to pay, it can. The government might also want information for more nefarious reasons, like finding out your community’s collective position on environmentalism, so it can pick the best town for hosting an anti-environmentalist protest in an effort to restore the public reputation of an environmentally-destructive corporation who donated millions to political campaigns, by creating a social media buzz to combat persistent negative coverage by the media. A peek into the Facebook profiles of everyone in a geographic location can reap that kind of data.
The conspiracy theory claims the government actually bought Facebook back in 2005 via investments by James Breyer, a former board member for Raytheon BBN Technologies, an agency contracted with the US government, specifically DARPA — Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency— to assist with the development of defense and information-gathering technology. Breyer’s ties to the intelligence community run even deeper than that when one looks at his associations at BBN. Among the board members who served with Breyer at BBN, were other key figures in the defense technologies and intelligence-gathering world, such as Gilman Louie, the head of In-Q-Tel, and of course, Anita K. Jones, whose official responsibilities included oversight of DARPA at the time.
They are all just pieces of a government-spying puzzle that doesn’t require a MENSA chapter president to figure out. The framework of that puzzle was put together for us by documents brought to light by Edward Snowden, but filling in the details still takes a little bit of speculation.
To speculate, though, one has to take a look from the highest possible vantage point to get a good view of the entire picture. That’s when we see Facebook as an entity of greater value than just keeping tabs for military defense. Facebook also opened the door for economic growth by way of enhanced target marketing using information collected from our Facebook profiles, and other online activities, which is valuable information to the corporations whose money and lobbyists influence government decision making.
What better perk is there to give back as a, “Thank you, for your support,” than that?
While this element is often left out of the Facebook conspiracy theory, it is certainly part of the narrative that can’t be ignored. Quid pro quo is after all, what makes the wheels of government go round.
Hiding Information from The Man Harder Than Ever
Think about how much the corporate world of marketing already knows about you, and how they use it in an effort to manipulate your buying habits. It’s kind of scary when you think about it, and even scarier when you realize the government itself might have opened the door to allowing such practices to happen.
I recently spent an afternoon on Google researching web hosting and domain name registration options to get myself caught up on information I hadn’t looked into for several years. I spent several hours that day reading about rates, packages, limitations, service agreements, and all of that mess, and seemed benign while I was doing it. Now for the past week, I’ve been inundated with advertisements from hosting companies pitching their lowest rates and offering me special discount codes through advertisements in my social media accounts and just about every other website I visit.
Facebook, and many others, do the same thing. The practice is so widespread, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the watchful eyes of marketers away out of your life, as Princeton University Assistant Sociology Professor Janet Vertesi found out when she attempted to hide her pregnancy from the prying eyes of online marketers.
She instructed her friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, to refrain from mentioning the pregnancy on Facebook or other online platforms. She also went to great lengths to stay off the grid with her own Internet searching and purchasing practices. To do this she made her purchases in cash from local businesses without the use of shopper-loyalty cards or other incentive programs retailers offer in exchange for the convenience of tracking your purchases at the register.
She searched the Internet for baby-related products using Tor, the allegedly secure, and untraceable, search engine famous for providing the Silk Road to the Dark Web and access to sellers of illegal substances who rely on cryptocurrencies for transactions. When she and her husband had to use a retailer like Amazon for a purchase, the did so with Amazon Gift Cards linked to a privately-hosted email account, and to the physical address of a postage locker. This unusual behavior prompted an unusual response while trying to buy $500 worth of Amazon Gift Cards in cash from a local retailer. When the cashier rang up the purchase, the cash register cued the employee to report excessive transactions to the authorities.
Ultimately, Vertesi did manage to avoid receiving target marketing about her pregnancy, but the effort to avoid it was so inconvenient it was hardly worth the bother. There are just too many ways for information to be collected and analyzed in the retail world to avoid them all without great discipline and added expense. It’s hard to beat intelligence gathering tactics essentially built directly to devices we carry in our pockets everywhere we go, as is customary with smartphones. No wonder stores like Target can figure out if a woman is pregnant, and even when she is due, before she ever registers for baby shower purchases in a Target store. They can tell simply by monitoring what you buy in their stores. They are so good at it, they often let the secret out before the woman is ready to reveal the information to family and friends.
Hear Vertesi tell her story at the 2014 Theorizing the Web Conference in Brooklyn last month.
If the government was involved in creating Facebook, it makes you wonder whether corporate lobbyists didn’t catch wind of the ongoing development of a powerful tool intended for use by the intelligence community to gather information about the public, and then begged for access by way of significant contributions to the right political palms in Washington D.C..
Was Facebook founded by the CIA just to be a data collection tool?
With the private sector spending millions to pry into our lives via electronic means for marketing purposes, and being shockingly successful at it, and given Edward Snowden’s revelations about the information gathering practices of entities like the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, it’s not that great of a stretch to imagine there was a collective effort at some point make gathering information easier.
That’s when thunder clapped, lighting struck, and an electronically altered voice crackled from a speaker phone to a boardroom full of government information-gathering specialists, and said, “Let there be Facebook.”
And boy was there ever a tool called Facebook.
As of January 1, 2014, there were 1.3 billion active monthly users of Facebook. There were only 800 million users as recently as 2012. It just keeps growing.
In parts of the world where nearly everyone has Internet access, and where nearly everyone possesses the technology to access it, there is a good chance the folks living there who don’t have a Facebook account are in the minority.
So when information arises that connects government intelligence gathering organizations directly to Facebook on an investment-level at the company’s infancy, it immediately raises concern.
As mentioned earlier, conspiracy theorists often point to investments totaling nearly $14 million by James Breyer in 2005, through a personal investment and an investment by Breyer’s venture capital company, Accel Partners, as being a connection between the government and Facebook. Breyer’s BBN connections with Gilman Louie, who set up the CIA’s own investment capital and technology development agency In-Q-Tel in 1999, and Anita K. Jones of DARPA, also adds fuel to the conspiracy theory fire.
In-Q-Tel’s primary mission is to assist the CIA in finding technological solutions for its missions, and data collection is a big part of that mission.
InQtel is most likely behind the development of PRISM, a data collection effort by the NSA and GCHQ which collects/collected user information from the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Skype, AOL, Yahoo, and PalTalk. The existence of PRISM was revealed in classified documents obtained and released by former CIA-employee Edward Snowden. As recently as last week, Snowden claims we are all still under surveillance at all times, and everything we do is being watched and collected. Snowden is being sought by the US in connection with the release of the classified information, but is currently hiding out in Russia where he was granted asylum last year.
The information-gathering claims associated with PRISM alleging a Facebook connection make connecting some dots easy, but if theorists are right, and Breyer’s investment group was used by the CIA to provide the capital needed to develop Facebook, there is still a lot more left to learn.
A quick look at Facebook’s history gives more credence to the claims made by conspiracy theorists.
Facebook wasn’t open to general public users until September 26, 2006, well after the investor with In-Q-tel, BBN, and DARPA connections became involved with the project in 2005. Prior to that, Facebook was only open to college students from February 4, 2004-September 3, 2005, when it was then opened up to users still in high school too.
This timeline is certainly right for conspiracy theories about government involvement from the company’s infancy to erupt and run rampant.
Thanks to Snowden, we know the NSA and others have collected data about Facebook users over the years, but the timeline of investment and development, and the dots that can be connected surrounding the entities involved, does make one wonder whether conspiracy theorists are right, and the NSA and CIA were behind the development of Facebook for that very purpose. If this is true, it could be the most successful information gathering device ever created by a government to spy on not only its people, but people around the world.
In 2006, the same year Facebook became open to everyone, Louie, of In-Q-Tel, received numerous accolades such as the Medallion of Outstanding Service and Support from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and the CIA Director’s Award, all for his work with In-Q-Tel.
Were the accolades connected to the public launch of Facebook? We can’t say, but Louie was obviously doing something right, and in In-Q-Tel’s business, doing something right means finding new ways for intelligence agencies to use technology to gather the information needed to accomplish their missions.
Government Spying So Scary We Have To Laugh To Maintain Sanity
The conspiracy theory about the government creating Facebook is in the mainstream now, but it exists there primarily as a laughing matter. Surprisingly, laughing at it, or at least laughing about it, is among the most appropriate responses a person could choose.
Laughter has long been a mystery psychological researchers have been looking into for years, and they have found we laugh for a number of different reasons, but among them is nervousness, stress, and anxiety. It’s just our way of getting through mentally/emotionally challenging experiences, like knowing, without a doubt, conspiracy theorists were right about the government watching us and collecting our data for intelligence purposes.
With that in mind, here is the piece from standup comedian Pete Holmes, which inspired me to write this piece after hearing it for the first time several days ago. Holmes makes the claim Facebook was created by the government, and then he goes on to elaborate about how easy we make it for them to find out what we’re up to on a daily basis. (You’ll have to go to the link to view it. Tried to embed it here, but it simply refused to do it correctly by just pasting the embed code into page.)
The Onion, perhaps the greatest online source for pure satire, too a different approach that not only explored the idea Facebook was created by the government, but takes a stab at the talking heads on 24-hour cable news networks who spout off about issues they don’t know any more about than the average guy on the street who has read a few magazine articles or blog posts about a given issue.
So was Facebook a government project that grew into a cultural phenomenon, just as they anticipated it would by testing it on college and high school kids, or is it all just conspiracy theory and conjecture?
If the marketing world can legally obtain enough information to figure out if a woman is pregnant before she announces it to the world, and if our online activities dictate the ads we see while surfing the net, then believing the government, any government, but especially the one in the US, is already doing what marketers do, and then some, is quite easy to do. It’s even easier when the government in question throws a fit when classified documentation declaring as much get released to the public without its consent.
The idea the government knew Facebook would catch on and become a website used by more than 1.3 billion people within 10 years of its launch, way back in 2005 when it was still being developed, does seem far fetched. At the same time, it is conceivable that the investment was the was just the equivalent of a $14 million lottery ticket that paid off bigger than the intelligence gathering community ever dreamed.
And that is the beauty of a good conspiracy theory. It might sound crazy on the surface, but deep inside its bowels are enough puzzle pieces to put together a clear picture. That clear picture, however, isn’t the only one that can be made from those very same pieces.
In this particular situation, however, the puzzle pieces do come together to make a clear image portraying the government as being a driving force behind the development of a social phenomenon that gave it direct access to nearly every detail of our lives, and provided corporate constituents with improved marketing strategies to help their bottom line.
The bottom line for us, as consumers and citizens, is what little privacy we have left in the digital world, if there even truly ever was any, is on life support and might not make it through the night.