Facebook’s algorithms recently tagged about 65,000 Russian users as “interested in treason.” Facebooks’s advertising tools have algorithms that tag users based on their behavior. This makes it easier for advertisers to target people interested in specific topics. In this case, however, the tag “treason” might have invited some government intervention and trouble for the users.
Facebook had included ‘treason’ as a category because it has historical significance, but has now removed it according to a report by The Guardian. “Treason was included as a category, given its historical significance. Given it’s an illegal activity, we’ve removed it as an interest category,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian.
With automated profiling, Facebook is able to gather data by recording your behaviour, and make inferences about who you are and what you like. These include your gender, sexuality, religion among others. According to the report, Facebook does not directly expose user interests to external parties. However, it is likely that advertisers can easily dig out the information.
This means that, in the case of the ‘treason’ label, is easy to find out some of these users, and making them vulnerable to possible government intervention.
Governments then, find this appealing because it becomes easy for them to use the internet for repression, explains Mette Skak, an expert on Russia and an academic at the Aarhus University. He adds, “Officially, the internet is not censored in Russia. However, these methods, which Facebook has probably unwittingly given the Russian authorities, make it much easier for governmental agencies to systematically track persons marked as potential traitors.”
Technology like algorithmic profiling is helpful when an advertiser wants to advertise Thai food to people who like Thai food, or exotic vacation spots to people who want to go on a vacation, but what it also does is, give governments access, to a lot of user data, which they possibly use to oppress citizens.
On 11 July, the social media giant was discovered to have given access to Russia’s Mail.ru. It received a special extension from Facebook to comply with a rule that it put in place to prevent third-party apps from collecting data on their users’ friends. Facebook, however, told CNN that the company hadn’t found any evidence of Mail.Ru abusing this access.