Open planet / The Deciders: Facebook, Google, and the Future of Privacy and Free Speech

Jeffrey Rosen, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Governance Studies
The Brookings Institution

It was 2025 when Facebook decided to post live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras, so they could be searched online. The decision hardly came as a surprise. Ever since Facebook passed the 500 million-member mark in 2010, it found increasing consumer demand for applications that allowed users to access surveillance cameras with publicly accessible IP addresses. (Initially, live feeds to cameras on Mexican beaches were especially popular.)
But in the mid-2020s, popular demand for live surveillance camera feeds were joined by demands from the U.S. government that an open circuit television network would be invaluable in tracking potential terrorists. As a result, Facebook decided to link the public and private camera networks, post them live online, and store the video feeds without restrictions on distributed servers in the digital cloud.

Once the new open circuit system went live, anyone in the world could log onto the Internet, select a particular street view on Facebook maps and zoom in on a particular individual. Anyone could then back click on that individual to retrace her steps since she left the house in the morning or forward click on her to see where she was headed in the future. Using Facebook’s integrated face recognition app, users could click on a stranger walking down any street in the world, plug her image into the Facebook database to identify her by name, and then follow her movements from door-to-door. Since cameras were virtually ubiquitous in public and commercial spaces, the result was the possibility of ubiquitous identification and surveillance of all citizens virtually anywhere in the world—and by anyone. In an enthusiastic launch, Mark Zuckerberg dubbed the new 24/7 ubiquitous surveillance system ”Open Planet.”

Open Planet is not a technological fantasy. Most of the architecture for implementing it already exists, and it would be a simple enough task for Facebook or Google, if the companies chose, to get the system up and running: face recognition is already plausible, storage is increasing exponentially; and the only limitation is the coverage and scope of the existing cameras, which are growing by the day. Indeed, at a legal Futures Conference at Stanford in 2007, Andrew McLaughlin, then the head of public policy at Google, said he expected Google to get requests to put linked surveillance networks live and online within the decade. How, he, asked the audience of scholars and technologists, should Google respond?

If ”Open Planet” went live, would it violate the Constitution? The answer is that it might not under Supreme Court doctrine as it now exists—at least not if it were a purely-private affair, run by private companies alone and without government involvement. Both the First Amendment, which protects free speech, and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, only restrict actions by the government. On the other hand, if the government directed Open Planet’s creation or used it to track citizens on government-owned, as well as private-sector, cameras, perhaps Facebook might be viewed as the equivalent of a state actor, and therefore restricted by the Constitution.

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