Tunisia is in the midst of what increasingly looks like a happy, democratic revolution. People are wondering about the role social media played in that revolution. It turns out Facebook played a great role — for good and for bad.For good, Facebook became the primary means by which the people communicated among each other and to the outside world. Grainy cell phone footage of people beaten up by police spread virally on Facebook, helping spark outrage. Useful informations like numbers to reach the army (the police cracked down harsh on the protesters but the army, crucially, sided with them) were also spread.
But the bad was “unprecedented”, according to Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan. The Atlantic has a great article on the Tunisian government’s online efforts and Facebook’s response.
Basically, the Tunisian government, through internet service providers, tried to steal the Facebook login info (usernames and passwords) of everyone in Tunisia. They did this through keyloggers, a piece of software that records the keys you hit on your computer.
When Facebook realised this was going on, they quickly switched the entire Tunisian site to https, the encrypted version of the HTTP protocol on which the web is built. (As an aside, we wonder why they don’t do this by default for everyone. Https is slower, but it would sitll be more secure.)
Obviously, the Tunisian government getting ahold of these passwords would not only have kneecapped the fledgling democracy movement, but meant the uncovering, and subsequent imprisonment, torture and possible death of dozens of activists, at least.
What interested us in the article was how non-political Facebook has decided to be about all this. Sullivan is at pain to stress many times that the reason they protected those logins was because they saw it not as a political issue but as a security issue (which it almost certainly was).
As Facebook is increasingly globalized, it’s going to have to learn to deal more and more with authoritarian governments and developed a policy, which it doesn’t seem to have done, so far. But it needs to, because the information it holds on its users is potentially even more sensitive than what Google holds, and which was the reason why that company eventually left China.