This blog is highly personal, makes no attempt at being politically correct, will occasionaly offend your sensibility, and certainly does not represent the opinions of the people I work with or for.
The (True) Story Behind Facebook
avatar
Amsterdam, a week-end of April 2010.

Pascal: Hi LX, thanks for meeting me. So tell me why you decided to come out and tell your story to the entire world ?

LX: Well, Facebook is now close to be unstoppable, it has grown beyond a point where even this story could harm it. Additionally, during the past two years there has been abuses of privacy laws by various US agencies, including law enforcement agencies, acting without any warrants or supervision when accessing people's data, and I feel partially responsible for it.

Pascal: So how did that all thing get started ?

LX: Well.. Where to start ?...

Pascal: What about at the beginning.

LX: Ok. So I joined the NSA in the 90's (exact date has been removed from the transcript), I had just got my Masters in [hidden] and they contacted me and gave me an offer. I had never thought of working for a government agency during my studies, but the NSA has a reputation of doing some very advanced research; so out of excitement I jumped in. The first few years I was in a team doing research in some A.I. subjects (just like many other people there actually...), quite advanced stuff. It took me a little while to understand why they needed me, but then I became a true part of their research effort. All of this was classified of course, but also a lot of fun. Anyway, one day we had a talk by someone from the CIA who said that she was working on ways to use the growing success of the internet to gather information more efficiently than before. The world wide web had already been known for a while in academia, but more and more people at home were getting access to it, and this was a very big concern for intelligence agencies all around the world, including with us in the US. There were more or less successful programs to read people's emails, monitor their online use etc, but most just could not keep up with the exponential growth of the network. There were also concerns, a lot of them, about the possible democratisation of tools like the PGP...

Pascal: You are talking about Zimmermann's encryption cypher, right ?

LX: Yes, that thing. Actually we are lucky that people didn't really picked up on that, otherwise we would have been in a shit load of trouble. But anyway, the CIA folks were really worried that the net was growing unsupervised and at the NSA we knew about it, though without having a lot of clues in how to help them.
Amidst all of that, MySpace came along in 2003, and the CIA started to have a look at those web apps. I don't think that MySpace actually willingly collaborated with them, but I guess that there was an aspect of it that interested the CIA, what has become to be known as the "social graph". I think that the term was very first made up by someone over there, but I am not sure. I think that they got interested in the fact that the users of the site where so willing to give away all sort private information to a third party (the company behind the web application). If you think of it, it looked like crazy to us (at the time) that so much personal data could be made available (to us) by people willing to do it. The amount to data and details about people's lives was crazy. The data that we had access to was most of the time totally useless, but it was something we had never knew was possible before seeing it.

Pascal: Why do you think this was possible ?

LX: I, and many other people, have been asking this question ever since, and I think that it all comes down to a simple thing: people simply don't realise. Most people buying computers are simply clueless about networks, databases, all those stuff. I think that the computing revolution has taken people off guard. Their understanding of the entire thing is simply miles away from the reality. I mean, we both know that most people don't even realise that their emails can be read over the network. How do they think this actually works ?

Pascal: Do you think this will change ?

LX I do not know, I am not sure. When I see the amount of data which filters out of people when they use all the new communication technology given to them, I don't see any trend towards the opposite of what we have seen since the beginning...

Pascal: So, MySpace ?

LX: Yes, in fact it took me a while, probably because it was so simple in concept, but one day I went back to the CIA girl and told her that maybe I had an idea for her. The idea was to build a new web application solely designed to collect personal data. Controlled by us, but run as an independent venture.

Pascal: Facebook ?

LX: Yes, Facebook. In a nutshell: the most successful IT project of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Pascal: Amazing!

LX: Yes, the folks over there are just crazy about it. Anyway, we had to plan it carefully. In 2001, we recruited Zuckenberg to work for us.

Pascal: Mark Zuckenberg is a CIA agent ?!

LX: Well, not very exactly, but it does work for the agency. We wanted the venture to be run by a very young person, possibly still in college. I mean we knew that in the collective mind, above all after the dot com thing, people would more easily buy the idea of the web app built by a college student.

Pascal: So why him ?

LX Because he was just there, I think. I mean, I wasn't directly involved in his hiring, but I don't think that the identity of whomever would pose as "founder", really mattered. He simply needed to be very young. I guess that the CIA took our advice as "as young as possible". To be fair, this was a nice move. The media keep talking about how young he is and this moves their attention away from the real issue.

Pascal: But all this could have failed, right ?

LX: Well, yes. But look, we had nothing to lose.

Pascal: Yes, true.

LX: In the end, not only it didn't fail, but the data we collect daily is simply amazing. We had to send some of our own employees over to the CIA to help them process the data that they receive; I mean those scales are well beyond what the CIA is used to, or even structurally able to handle. Also, there are a lot of effort made in image processing and face analysis, and the NSA has got lots of expertise in this. There is a lot of data to be extracted from all those pictures. there is an ocean of information to go through.

Pascal: But is that really useful ? I mean do you really discover stuff you didn't know ?

LX: There's been few successes, but to be honest Facebook is simply a huge, successful, but above all R&D project. They are learning a lot because of it. Of course you have to be careful because after all, you should not necessary have a lot of trust in what you see, read or hear, a deadly thing for them would be to believe everything at face value, but it is as much about the process as it is about the data. Anyway, I think that the only thing they are waiting now in for Bin Laden to create his own account :-p maybe then they will be able to catch him :-)
(There are many NSA's internal jokes about the way the CIA deal with that all OBL thing, don't get me started on that....)

Pascal: But Facebook is an independent legal entity, what if they got bought by another company and you lose your grip on them.

LX: This is a risk, not a huge one though, but in reality have you seen how M.Z. refuses any talk regarding him stepping down as a CEO ? We have told him to reply that most successful companies are run by their original founders. He throws this sentence at people every time the subject comes up :-)

Pascal: So what's next ?

LX: For the CIA, I don't really know, but for us at the NSA, we definitively have something new, something of our own, soon coming up... But we are more clever than them, the result is going to be... transcendental :-)

[ add a comment ]

Archives