This week, we learned how shockingly lax Facebook appears to have been around how much of its data leaks into the servers of other companies, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and Spotify, according to a report by The New York Times. Once that data is ‘in the wild,’ neither Facebook, nor perhaps anyone else can be certain what companies, or perhaps which governments, can acquire and use it. A bit like the petroleum that drove earlier international conflicts, the oceans of data you help create by using Facebook and other digital platforms are likely soon to become terrain for geopolitical competition — a competition the United States is not well poised to win.
Until now, public attention has focused on how undemocratic actors use various social media platforms to undermine democracy or security. Violent Islamist and “alt-right” groups have successfully leveraged such platforms to recruit and propagandize. Through Facebook’s cascading scandals, we’ve also learned that Russia’s Internet Research Agency used fake Facebook accounts — not to mention Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+ — as vehicles to disseminate destabilizing misinformation in some cases both before and after the 2016 presidential election.
There is a difference, however, between the use of a communication platform by an entity hostile to democracy under the rule of law, and the latter’s acquisition and exploitation of the data produced by that platform. To date, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, ISIS and domestic neo-Nazi groups have been users of platforms. So far as we know, either all or almost all of these actors have not acquired data. What if they had?
Social media and other apps now produce previously unimaginable troves of highly detailed data about individual behavior, preferences and even personality traits. This ‘big data’ can be exploited in astonishing ways. A whole field of “mining” social media has sprung up in the past decade. Mining involves crafting new computational tools for squeezing insight from big data. Applying tools such as “neural networks,” — sophisticated algorithms loosely modeled on the brain — one can predict everything from stock prices and box office success from social media data. And the locational data generated through cellphone apps can be milled into surprisingly nuanced recommendation tools, which can surprise their users by suggesting new restaurants or events that they didn’t know of before.
Even the photos larding Facebook pages can yield surprising insight. External algorithms, for example, can analyze images of faces to predict sexual orientation with uncanny accuracy.
To be sure, it would be a mistake to downplay how intrusive the mere use of social media platforms can be. As one recent study shows, advertisers can use Facebook data to target outreach based on psychological traits, such as extroversion, and significantly shift behavior. But the magnitude of the privacy intrusion, and the potential for abuse, takes a big leap when we’re talking not just about using the platform but also accessing the data.
In 2014, Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based firm that advised the Trump campaign, acquired Facebook data for tens of millions of users. As CNN has reported, Cambridge’s data may have been accessed from Russia. For whom and to what end, though, remains unclear. The obvious question is whether the data has been shared with the Russian state itself.
Here’s where recent revelations really bite: They suggest that it’s only a matter of time before a foreign power hostile to democracy acquires large chunks of that data, and starts looking for ways to weaponize it against us. And the power most likely to do so is China, not Russia.
Consider that China has already aggressively acted to acquire data about Americans. It’s suspected of hacking the federal government’s personnel system in 2014, a project with obvious national security implications. But it’s also believed to have aimed at private entities such as Anthem Insurance and, according to The New York Times, Marriott, which have large pools of private data and lack obvious security uses. China has denied knowledge of the hacks.
China, unlike Russia, is also well positioned to exploit social-media data. Unlike the Russian state, the Chinese state has made massive investments recently in state-of-the-art machine learning and quantum computing. Because data is only as useful as the analytic tools one has to hand, these unparalleled investments mean that China is uniquely positioned to exploit social media data.
To a greater extent than the US police, moreover, China is finding ways to leverage state-of-the-art computational tools to extend its power. The Chinese state, for example, exercises deep influence over some social media sites and other social media sites through the savvy use of big-data tools. On the street, Chinese security forces already deploy big-data technologies, such as facial recognition, to startling effect. The nascent “social credit” system, which ranks citizens on an point scale for ideological conformity, already draws heavily on facial recognition and like computation tools.
If China is willing to exploit big data’s potential against its own people, it is unlikely to have scruples when it comes to exploiting other people’s data to undermine democracy, exploit social fractures and sow paralyzing conflict.
A world in which China can acquire and exploit Facebook data — perhaps by putting pressure on partner tech companies with large Chinese presences — is just around the corner. Perhaps it is not already here. We aren’t ready. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently cautioned that the US is already starting to lag in terms of sheer technological prowess. The administration’s ambition to seemingly weaken US universities, which critics say it sees as political foes, only exacerbates that peril. The White House’s reported ambition to weaken what it views as excessively liberal US universities by curbing their access to foreign students only exacerbates that peril.
How much the US government can now do remains to be seen: It must both cultivate Silicon Valley as a source of data, and also address public demands for regulatory action. These goals are in conflict with each other. But ultimately, the fault lies with us: For it would be a rich and startling irony indeed if the instrument that helped tip the strategic balance of power between China and the US was the fruit of our own social media addiction.