The Borowitz Report has a funny post up today (hat tip Box of Meat) about Facebook and China:

China to Stop Spying on its People; Will Use Facebook Instead
Social Network to Replace Listening Devices, Spy Satellites

BEIJING – The Chinese government announced today that it would disband its extensive domestic spying program that gathers personal information on its citizens and would instead use Facebook.

According to the head of the domestic spying operation, China decided to scrap its elaborate array of spy satellites, eavesdropping devices and closed-circuit surveillance cameras after recognizing that Facebook put them all to shame.

“At the end of the day, we were not getting as much intimate personal data as Facebook does,” he said.  “So as of today, every man, woman and child in China is officially our ‘friend.’”

The Chinese version of Facebook, launched next week, will feature addictive online games reminiscent of the American version, such as Collective Farmville.

The Borowitz Report is a tongue-in-cheek social commentary blog but this one does have an element of truth to it.  It contrasts the styles of government collection of private information vs voluntary disclosure of private information.

For a country such as China that is determined to maintain internal stability, they have a desire to crackdown on dissent.  Because the population is so large and because there are such strong tensions between the rural/urban split (2/3 vs 1/3 of the population), imbalances can cause that instability into a weakened government.  When China is fractured and divided it is easier to conquer.  So, in order to prevent this, China engages in a series of human rights crackdowns in order to collect information and monitor people and movements that they perceive as internal threats to the regime.  They can do this using spy satellites and listening devices, as well as banning access to certain sites on the Internet and not letting certain data go outside its borders (referred to as the Great Firewall of China – this is a reverse pun on the Great Wall of China except that wall was designed to keep people out, not in).

This, of course, requires a lot of technological resources and the government has to maintain a vast technological infrastructure in order to collect information on people who are either unwilling to reveal it or actively trying to hide it.  By contrast, Facebook is a huge social networking site where people voluntarily share information with each other.  They put their interests, likes, dislikes, books they read, friends they associate with, email address, pictures, videos, and so forth, all online for others to see.  Using this information, private marketing companies can build a dossier of a user and target advertisements (whenever I log in to Facebook, I always see ads for dating sites on the right hand side of my page because my relationship status says that I am single).  However, while marketers can gain access to this information in order to make money, governments could find it useful to keep track people who oppose their regime.  By monitoring people’s political interests, and their friends, for a much lower cost of maintenance it is far quicker to build up profiles on your citizen base.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple.  For the majority of the population, this type of information just isn’t that interesting.  While having access to lots of information is a plus, sorting through that information and finding something useful isn’t as easy as it sounds.  And it also assumes that the people who you monitor are actually using Facebook (not necessarily true in the developing world, such as China) and are careless about the information that they reveal (likely in the case of an inexperienced political dissenter, much less likely in the case of an experienced one).  So, while the government adding everyone as a friend would likely yield some interesting trends, and while it would likely yield some actionable information, it wouldn’t necessarily be able to yield exhaustive information.  It takes time to search through billions of records, and it takes time to sort all of those results, and it takes time to follow up on the leads.  But if those leads don’t go anywhere, then it doesn’t necessarily lead to an efficient use of resources.