Facebook's Expanding Insanity
I never liked Facebook that much. I found it a rather frustratingly difficult, counter-intuitive platform – and mind you, I am someone who knows some computer coding and used to write WordPress themes for a hobby. I am used to technically obtuse platforms. However, Facebook's recent behavior haS taken it from the merely difficult to the arena of totalitarian and irrational.
A few years ago, one could set up a Facebook account rather easily: just provide an email. Later on, Facebook wanted phone verification. That was easily handled, and if one wanted to use a third-party phone number, to protect one's anonymity, there were ways to get around that phone requirement.
After that, Facebook sometimes asked for a photograph of the account-user's face. The official explanation was that Facebook wanted to be sure that the user was really who he claimed to be. Supposedly, the picture would be analyzed by a computer or a human inspector and then erased.
Facebook apparently runs a face recognition algorithm to reduce the picture to a mathematical hash value. After processing, Facebook then can compare the hash value with other values in its records to see if the picture is a duplicate or a fraud.
That alone should set off a red flag. Now Facebook is becoming a quasi-authoritarian compiler of centralized information data.
The problem is that using pictures for facial recognition is somewhat easily defeatable. One can grab a picture off Google, change eye color and skin tone with Gimp or Photoshop, and make a few minor distortions to create an imaginary human being. A simple, almost unnoticeable blurring of an image is enough to defeat the algorithm's hash value calculations.
The Photoshopping of a bogus face may beyond the scope of most users, but it is well within the ability of most graphics artists and hackers, who could take an image and reconstruct a new human face in a matter of minutes.
Facebook was not deterred. Now it sometimes requires a picture of a government-issued photo ID, driver's license, or passport image to allow access to its platform – all in the name of security, they claim: to make sure that you are not using a false name, for example.
There are ways to defeat that ID requirement also – if it is presented to you – but the Photoshop skills required become a bit more daunting. It might take half an hour rather than five minutes. For the technically clueless, there are fake ID apps to walk you through the process.
But what about the metadata that come packaged in every picture, which might let Facebook know that the image is not a selfie, but an altered photo taken from the web? Can't Facebook detect that?
To defeat embedded identifying metadata (date of original file creation, etc.) at the beginning of a .jpg or .png file, one could simply open the picture on screen and take a snippet or screenshot, to create a brand new image with new metadata. Simply saving the altered image under another name might be sufficient. The more technically astute can use Exiftool, which is freeware, to create bogus metadata. This would take only a minute or two.
If one knows what one is doing, one can create a false identity to get a Facebook account and have it set up and authorized rather quickly. The tricks are sophomoric, but they work. The Photoshopping and metadata modifications are the technically hardest parts – and they are not that hard. If you do not know how to do them, there are YouTube video tutorials to help you.
Now Facebook is asking users who have been the victims of revenge and blackmail porn to send Facebook nude photos of themselves so Facebook can generate a hash value of the porn and erase any photos on their network having a similar value.
Facebook is testing a new method to combat revenge porn in Australia, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation reports. The strategy entails uploading your nude photos or videos to Messenger in order to help Facebook tag it as non-consensual explicit media.
The idea is that Facebook will take your nude shot, reduce it to a mathematical hash value, erase the original picture (yeah, right!), and then use that hash value to search out and erase any similar photos on its system, thus stopping revenge porn in its tracks. No longer would you be blackmailed.
But any hacker could tell you that merely blurring an image – in Gimp or Photoshop – over a small range (3-4 pixels) and then re-sharpening the image would be enough to change the mathematical hash value and would be all but imperceptible to the eye apart from a magnifying glass. Metadata can be easily changed as well. So revenge-blackmailers could easily evade detection.
I know what you're saying: who is going to go through all that trouble?
Sixteen-year-old boys! That is who! They are often simultaneously technically adept and fascinated by photos of nude women. And they would demand ransom from revenge porn, payable in bitcoin. Good luck!
Any victim, almost certainly a woman, should be warned against considering Facebook's outrageous advice. The absurdity of that request is amazing. Does anyone really think those nude shots will not make it out to the wider world?
Academia has chimed in.
Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth who helped develop PhotoDNA, described Facebook's pilot [concerning illegal photos] as a "terrific idea[."]
"The deployment of this technology would not prevent someone from sharing images outside of the Facebook ecosystem, so we should encourage all online platforms to participate in this program, as we do with PhotoDNA," he said.
And this guy is a professor? Just one more reason to avoid the Ivy League.
The problem is that Facebook is reacting, not thinking. Early scandals forced Facebook to tighten up its controls, but the most damaging crisis came with the Facebook Intifada of 2015.
Palestinians Arabs were using Facebook accounts to "incite" violence against Jews in Israel. (Click here for video.) Facebook did not react fast enough for Israeli authorities, and so the Israel Law Center (Shurat HaDin) filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against Facebook.
The lawsuit was thrown out of court in May 2017. However, Facebook was severely chastened by the prospect of non-stop litigation.
A [U.S.] federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday dismissed both the Richard Lakin and Taylor Force civil cases against Facebook in a blow to efforts to use a new tactic of suing the social media giant for terrorism to get it to rein in Palestinian terrorists' use of its platform.
Now Facebook, which once defied the authorities, is accused of doing an about-face and doing whatever the U.S. or Israeli government wants.
It seems that the Israelis may have lost the lawsuit but made their point. By November 2017, Facebook started requiring selfies as a form of identification.
I am glad that Jewish lives are being saved but simultaneously horrified at Facebook's totalitarian collection of personal information – particularly the request for nude pics.
The only ones reined in by this will be amateurs. The truly competent – which will be top-heavy with 16-year-old boys – will hardly skip a beat. These will be familiar with Photoshop, ExifTool, and...oh, yeah...proxies.
In the meantime, most of you should avoid Facebook unless you are up to creating a false or modified identity. Facebook does not need that all that personal information.
There will be an ethical consideration. Facebook's TOS (terms of service) require one to provide real information and open only one account. However, what Facebook does with the information is unconscionable.
If one wants a web presence – if one is a blogger or is a writer or owns a business – Facebook can be a major asset for building an audience. However, should one consider using a nom de plume instead of a real name to set up the account? That is the question. I think anyone would be insane to give Facebook real information or pictures.
There are manifold ways to defeat Facebook's TOS. One can hire a 16-year-old boy or watch some YouTube tutorials. In the end, whether it is more immoral to lie to Facebook or to give in to Facebook's outrageous requests will be your decision. Of course, one could forgo Facebook altogether, but that may not be much of an option to online businesses, where it has become somewhat of a necessity in some areas.
I cannot recommend any course of action. I do not want to get sued by Shurat HaDin.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish better in high school, lo those many decades ago. He runs a website about the Arab community in South America at http://latinarabia.com and a website about small computers at http://thetinydesktop.com.