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November 22, 2019updated 25 Nov 2019 11:04am

Amnesty condemns “insidious” Facebook and Google surveillance

By Robert Scammell

Amnesty International has slammed the “insidious” surveillance business models of Facebook and Google, warning that they pose an “unprecedented danger” to human rights.

In a report titled ‘Surveillance Giants’, the non-governmental human rights group explains that while free to use, Facebook and Google profit from their users’ personal data.

Amnesty says that this business model, also known as surveillance capitalism, is “enabling human rights harms at a population scale”.

The report, published yesterday, cites the Cambridge Analytica scandal as one example. The now-defunct political consultancy harvested the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge to create micro-targeted political ads during the 2016 presidential election.

“Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives – amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetising the personal data of billions of people,” said Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International.

“Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.”

Facebook and Google surveillance: Users are “trapped”

While Apple, Amazon and Microsoft also dominate, Amnesty singles out Facebook and Google as having the greatest control over the online landscape.

Internet users have no real alternative to using Google and Facebook, added Naidoo.

“Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time,” he said. “We are now trapped. Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery – where our data is easily weaponised to manipulate and influence us – or forego the benefits of the digital world.

“This can never be a legitimate choice. We must reclaim this essential public square, so we can participate without having our rights abused.”

Google and Facebook both disagreed with Amnesty’s surveillance report.

In a statement to Engadget, a Facebook spokesperson said:

“We fundamentally disagree with Amnesty International’s report. Facebook enables people all over the world to connect in ways that protect privacy, including in less developed countries through tools like Free Basics. Our business model is how groups like Amnesty International – who currently run ads on Facebook – reach supporters, raise money, and advance their mission.”

Verdict has reached out to Google for comment.

Amnesty called for governments to take urgent action to combat the surveillance-based business model.

“To protect our core human values in the digital age – dignity, autonomy, privacy – there needs to be a radical overhaul of the way Big Tech operates, and move to an internet that has human rights at its core,” said Naidoo.

“Now it is time to reclaim this vital public space for everyone rather than a few powerful unaccountable companies in Silicon Valley.”

Read more: Online freedom declines for ninth year due to mass surveillance and political manipulation