I have to come clean: I just lied to two people I care about very deeply. I said I was “under the weather” as an excuse for not seeing them. But I’m not ill. It’s that one of those friends works at Facebook. And this is the second time I’ve evaded them in two days, though I know they could really use my friendship right now.
I’m not punishing this friend. I just know that if we hang out I’m going to lose it about what I’m going through with Facebook. And that friend, who I know loves me, and also hates what Facebook is doing to me and others like me, they really don’t deserve my losing it on them.
To catch you up, last week on my birthday I decided to check Facebook for any birthday wishes, because I was having a crappy birthday. It became much worse when Facebook did two things. One, it informed me it had removed an image posted to my timeline based on violating its nudity/obscenity policy – though I had not posted an image, only a link to a post I wrote about a new documentary on identity and the gender binary (my link was posted with an NSFW warning). No image. I’ve been around the internet a long time, and I’ve been censored – mostly under inaccurate circumstances – by everyone from the government of Libya to Flickr, feminists and Christian conservatives alike, and Facebook, too, when a religious organization campaigned to (successfully) get one of my pages removed on false pretenses.
Next, Facebook said that to access my account I had to pass a security test to prove it was me, on the grounds of protecting my account’s security. These tests, which I attempted to pass for over an hour, were based on inaccurate information and literally impossible to pass. Nearly all were based on naming my “friend” in three photos – when each of the three photos were of three different people, or group shots. Facebook’s account security is apparently based on its users knowing what every one of of its friends looks like (do you?) … and the core premise that user tagging combined with Facebook’s facial recognition functions are 100% accurate. Failing that, as every single person will, I was presented with one security question about information I don’t actually know myself. In this critical juncture of account protection, Facebook’s security proved itself a complete and utter failure. Looking at Apple’s solution to this situation, it’s pretty clear that Facebook is not, in fact, doing security here.
All paths ended with access to my Facebook account being restored in exchange for me uploading a government ID. Not alternate forms of ID, but a strict and specific list of government-only identification. My experience is documented in detail with images here.
I had no less than three people approach me in the following days offering to help me get my account back, special favors style, from the inside. Two were private offers and one was public, from Facebook’s own head of security. I wonder how many other journalists who – like me – have covered Facebook critically in the past and then found themselves in my position, and took the special favor. Facebook, in fact, holds the particular honor of being one of the first entities I broke a story about, then secretly contacted my executive editors with false accusations about my professionalism while working on the story. I keep evidence, which I provided to my bosses, and so kept my position at the media outlet I work for intact.
The most recent story about Facebook with my byline is Women, LGBT least safe on Facebook, despite ‘real name’ policy. In it, I revealed the company’s practice of taking user ID on the pretense of verifying identity ‘to keep its communities and users safe’ and then publishing information not voluntarily provided by the user without consent. It detailed the findings in a new report on harm done to domestic violence victims, A Glimpse From the Field: How Abusers Are Misusing Technology, which found Facebook to be the source of harm in 99% of cases – the epicenter for abuse, due to its ubiquitousness and lack of anonymity. The report found that Facebook is the most misused social media platform by abusers, period, and Facebook is a key place for attackers to access information about victims or harass them by direct messaging or via their friends and family. The respondents included national domestic violence programs, sexual assault programs, law enforcement, prosecutor’s offices and civil legal services. The primary mitigation against this harm from leading organizations such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) is advice to victims to never use, share or show real names or “real” information on the victim’s account. The victims on Facebook of this harassment were estimated at over 23 million female Facebook users as of June, 2015.
Needless to say, the harm to LGBT people is real as well. I was lucky to be adopted as an adult; I was a homeless teen. Before the age of 13, my mother was physically abused on a fairly regular basis – a domestic violence victim – and in one instance have a knife held to her throat. Things got worse, so I got out early and fast, and never went back. Getting off the streets was hard, and it was only possible because a gay couple made their home a place some of us street kids could eat and regroup a day or two at a time, and they let me use their business address to get my first ID – so I could get a SS#, and apply for jobs and food stamps. After I became an adult, I was adopted into a strong family of San Francisco’s incredible transgender women. They have dedicated their lives in service to preventing for others the suffering and violence they survived, too; my mom runs the SF Human Rights Commission, my aunt runs the Transgender Law Center, and my sister is striving to be a famous, out transgender persona who talks about helping trans kids at literally every public opportunity. So I can get stats if you want, but take my word that when I tell you most trans people – including kids – who are beaten, raped and murdered, their lives are snuffed out because someone, somewhere found out what was -ultimately to be found- on their ID.
This is reality. This is not theory. This is not assertions on Hacker News about how you must have something to hide if you want to keep something private. This is not about a man in a position of power and influence, who has industry privilege and respect for his wealth and status, at Google or Facebook saying that anonymity, or multiple online identities, demotes a ‘lack of credibility’. We don’t care of you believe we’re credible, we just don’t want your willful ignorance to ruin our lives or get us killed. This isn’t about telling us that someone must have been targeting LGBT people that one time – because, wouldn’t you know, you seem to have a new reason every year. This isn’t about how many people were in your company’s Pride contingent, and it damn well isn’t about jerking around a group of drag queens – who cope with the suffering done by outing every day, and for fuck’s sake we’ve buried too many people we love – for one of your little press appeasement moments. This isn’t about YOUR beliefs, or what you think is best for us. This is about you making us live in fear. This is about the fact that you have had a chance to make it right repeatedly, and when faced with one kid saying no please don’t publish my birth name – you looked away, again. https://www.facebook.com/help/community/question/?id=10204701697172621
Last weekend, as I sat locked out of my Facebook account ‘for security reasons’ (and you tagged me in something, not knowing I can’t respond), my friend’s boss Mark Zuckerberg spoke at the United Nations. He talked about plans to expand Facebook use into refugee camps, and made no pretensions about how this would be used to benefit his company. I personally know what this will do. I have, for many years, worked with members of Doctors Without Borders and the American Red Cross to train their applicants in border refugee crisis preparedness, through UCSF. This puts would-be refugee aid workers through an intensive, immersive border crisis refugee simulation, and in it I train alongside people who not only have lived through the worst of these situations on the African and South American continents, but see this training as a break between assignments into these living hells.
The trainings are realistic and terrifying. They begin by students getting passports and currency, and attempting a border crossing. The trainings consist of live-action episodes of protecting the locations and identities of women and children, treating gunshot wounds on the road, being ambushed and abducted, and being tortured for information. We have had students run, screaming, and being told they later got everyone in their team killed. I have had students leave my training crying, and had the lead from Doctors Without Borders sit me down after and tell me why that was a good thing, that if I’m not hard on them now, someone in their care could die. Or worse. There is worse. The stories he told me from his experiences to illuminate his point haunt me to this day. I recently heard there was a bombing where three DWB were killed, and I am deeply worried about this friend, who only occasionally gets to email me from the field.
So, this part of my little screed is about the historical fact that de-anonymizing refugees usually precedes murder on a grand scale.
Facebook is the world’s largest identity registrar, and it knows no limits. It mass collects personal and private information on citizens around the world, and it exfiltrates this, and makes it subject to the laws of the countries of its choosing – because there is nothing in place to stop it from doing so. It -may or may not- work with governments around the world to enforce the propaganda and surveillance agendas of who is in power, and this is well-documented, as is the use of Facebook by its own design to track, surveil, and disappear people (and dissent) in countries such as Ecuador (2), Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Azerbaijan and Turkey, to name just a few.
Facebook’s users can now troll me, dox me, do anything they want freely on my pages and profile, and I can’t do a goddamn thing about it. Unless of course, I want Facebook to have my ID, and most likely dox me instead. I’ve survived too long to trust companies like this, or to scan and upload my ID to total strangers somewhere on the internet, probably at some hellish outsourced helpdesk in Bangladesh.
I am well aware that my problems with Facebook are meaningless compared to others. If the worst happened to me as a result of Facebook’s relentless (remorseless), and blatant disregard for the sanctity of other people’s lives, it really is nothing compared to what others are going through.
I have since tried to contact Facebook’s Security, Privacy, Info and Support departments – without any special favors from Facebook employees. I have been told (alarmingly, with with increasing incompetence) that I must upload my ID. Facebook has not demonstrated that it is responsible enough, trustworthy enough, or even skilled enough at the basics of user security procedure to be handed a copy of my ID. Like a significant number of women who grudgingly use Facebook for professional reasons, I have police files with actionable death threats made against me, and also like many, I’ve had to make hard decisions between my reputation and my personal safety. Yes, that’s my name. But no, Facebook doesn’t get anything else about me, because like I said earlier, we – I – have buried too many people we love. No one’s burying me or those I love anytime soon if I have any say in the matter.
Do I want my account back? Only for one reason now. I’m prepared to give up the business reasons I kept a Facebook account, though it is going to make some things very difficult (also not possible) for me as a journalist and author. I want my info, so I know what risks I can expect from the shadow profile Facebook keeps on me and can try to mitigate the risks from rogue employees, powerful authorities, and any absolute bungling fuckup incompetency from Facebook itself, as I witnessed going through its “security questions”.
But now I just want out. I want my account deleted. I want the bullshit, inaccurate pages Facebook creates about me without my consent gone, too, but that’s just a bitter little joke for the ages, isn’t it? Facebook is just going to do whatever the fuck it wants to me. And to you.
Of course, Facebook won’t let me delete my circa-2007 account until I give up my ID.
My friend who works at Facebook just sent a message saying they love me. And they guessed why I’m avoiding them, and they hate what Facebook is doing. I’m not crying because I’m locked out of Facebook, I’m crying because I actually give a shit about the pain of others. I’m crying because I lied to a friend who, like me, is just trying to live her life, and understands what caring about other people really means.
I love you, too, and I’m sorry I just can’t talk to you right now.