Facebook took the opportunity this week at F8 to tout its work on “data for good.” At first glance, its Disaster Maps seem like a rare positive application of Facebook’s extraordinarily detailed and Orwellian realtime archive of the global physical location and movements of its two billion users as they go about their daily lives. Yet, as governments become accustomed to turning to Facebook to map their citizens and understand their spatial patterns of life, troubling questions are raised about whether Facebook may become ever more the ultimate surveillance platform for governments across the world.
Facebook’s Disaster Maps represent a rare “feel good” application of its immense global surveillance empire, allowing governments to rapidly triage the civilian impact of a major disaster. Understanding where the remaining population in the aftermath of a disaster is situated and their likely patterns of movement are crucial to helping get the public out of harms way and provide necessary assistance. In particular, understanding the surrounding locations where people in the affected area are most likely to seek refuge, such as the homes of family and friends in nearby towns, can help authorities preposition response teams, while visualizing the outflow of civilians from a disaster zone and seeing where they are seeking shelter in realtime is a dream of disaster responders.
Mobile phone CDR records have proven immensely valuable in tracking population dispersal after natural disasters. However, unlike CDR records, which must typically be acquired in piecemeal fashion from multiple providers across every country of interest, Facebook is able to track the realtime location of its users globally in a single centralized database regardless of their cellular provider and even as they travel throughout the world. Facebook’s global presence also means it is far more exposed to legal requests from foreign nations.