Unconfirmed rumours suggest that Facebook, the giant US-based social networking service with detailed database records on one tenth of the world’s population, could be poised to take over responsibility for counter-intelligence and surveillance services that were, until now, the monopoly of MI5.
Ministers are tight lipped but insiders say that Prime Minister David Cameron is impressed by the superior performance of the US-based operation headed by Mark Zuckerberg.
News reports about the government’s public sector privatisation plans have indicated this government’s willingness to contract out almost any public service if private companies think they can make a profit. The security services and judiciary had until now been thought exempt.
Nobody was available for comment at MI5’s Thames House headquarters. We were, however, able to reach an Inspector G. Lestrade at Scotland Yard, who offered some insights into the possible reasons for the policy change.
“Facebook’s intelligence gathering puts traditional services like MI5 into the shade”, said Lestrade. “In a few short years they’ve obtained a depth of information about citizens which even the KGB or Stasi couldn’t achieve in decades”.
Chief Inspector James Japp, a colleague of Lestrade’s agreed. “Some of us have had great results using traditional methods, and we’re not against bringing in private specialists when necessary, but Facebook is something else”.
Intelligence in depth
Where Facebook succeeds against traditional intelligence gathering is in the sheer depth, breadth and quality of the information, always up to date.
Facebook is believed to hold information on roughly 26 million Britons. Observers say that, in a nation of 46 million adults, that’s impressive in itself.
Whilst intelligence operatives have relied in the past on limited supplies of low quality, grainy photographs of citizens under special scrutiny, Facebook supplies dozens of high quality photos on each subject, helpfully tagged with details of ‘associates’, dates, events and places.
“The clever thing”, says Japp, “is that even people who don’t want to show their own face on their ‘profile’ get tagged in photos taken by friends. Facebook even use facial recognition to suggest they do it”.
“This is streets ahead of the methods used by the Stasi”, he added.
“With Facebook we’ve got it all”, adds Lestrade. “Facebook knows who you associate with, and the friends of your friends. They know what you’re saying and when, what you like, the things you’re reading, and where you were when you read them. Facebook’s intelligence personnel need never leave the office”.
Facebook is also lauded for the subtle ways in which it has mastered how to keep tabs on a mobile population. Whilst other corporations have done their part in persuading most citizens to willingly carry a personal GPS tracking device everywhere, Facebook is, in the jargon, the “systems integrator”.
With people spending an increasing part of every day communicating through the service, Facebook seems to have it all.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re at home or meeting associates for a drink, they know about it”, says Japp. “They know the internet address of your home computer today and yesterday, so they don’t have to waste time getting this information from telecoms providers. They know in advance where you’re planning to go, because you told them, and they know who else is there at the time when you arrive”.
Facebook’s methods mean that conventional intelligence operations just can’t compete. They are said to have none of the operating overheads that have traditionally contributed to the high cost of operations.
“Think of operatives shivering in stakeout operations … that’s all gone. And, with it, the overtime”, laments Japp.
“These private sector operatives we used to employ … they had expensive methods too, always running around the country, staying in expensive hotels”. “And don’t mention the opiates”, adds Lestrade.
Sources say that if this deal goes through, and it seems likely, then the government may reappraise other areas which David Cameron had previously ruled off limits. The secret service, MI6, could be next.
Secret feasibility studies are also underway to decide whether the judiciary could be replaced by Judge Judy.