Amnesty International Report Says Surveillance by Facebook, Google Poses Human Rights Threat

Facebook, Google
Amnesty International report calls Facebook and Google systematic threats to human rights Denis Charlet/Getty

Human rights activist group Amnesty International announced Thursday a report stating that Facebook and Google's extensive surveillance of billions of people poses a "systematic threat to human rights."

Their report, titled "Surveillance Giants: How the Business Model of Google and Facebook Threatens Human Rights," explains how the two social media companies have connected the world, but jeopardized the privacy of people who use them.

"Facebook is the world's most dominant media company. If you combine users of its social platform, its messenger service WhatsApp and Messenger, and applications such as Instagram, a third of humans on Earth use a Facebook-owned service every day," the report writes. "Facebook sets terms for much of human connection in the digital age." The report also referenced Google's broad reach through its popular search engine, as well as its browser Chrome, video platform YouTube and mobile operating system Android.

However, according to Amnesty's report, the use of Facebook and Google's services by people comes at a cost: that under those companies' business models, people are forced to "make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.

"Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination."

While the services Facebook and Google provide are free, said the report, people pay a price by providing personal data, which is then collected and used by the two social media behemoths to analyze and predict consumer behavior for ad revenue purposes. When that personal information (which is constantly monitored throughout the Internet, Amnesty says) is interfered with, it "threatens our ability to freely and independently develop and express thoughts and ideas and leaves us vulnerable to outside influence and control."

"Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time. We are now trapped," Secretary General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo said in a statement. "Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery – where our data is easily weaponized to manipulate and influence us – or forego the benefits of the digital world."

The report also cited the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica -- the now-defunct company that improperly collected the data of millions of voters from their Facebook profiles--as an example of how people's information can be misused and manipulated.

"We have already seen that Google and Facebook's vast architecture for advertising is a potent weapon in the wrong hands," Naidoo added. "Not only can it be misused for political ends, with potentially disastrous consequences for society, but it allows all kinds of new exploitative advertising tactics such as preying on vulnerable people struggling with illness, mental health or addiction."

Amnesty's study concluded with recommendations to address human rights and privacy abuses related to data collecting and monitoring. Among Amnesty's suggestions include that access to Facebook and Google's services are not conditional upon users "consenting" to having their personal data collected for marketing purposes; and that the tech companies hold back in pushing for relaxation on data protection and privacy legislation.

The report included Facebook's written response that disputed Amnesty's findings. "Our business model," said the company, "is what allows us to offer an important service where people can exercise foundational human rights—to have a voice (freedom of expression) and be able to connect (freedom of association and assembly)...There are countless examples of how people have used Facebook to advance human rights around the world. And, as a company, we're committed to respecting human rights, including the right to privacy."