Over and over in the last 20 years we’ve watched low-cost or free internet communications platforms spring from the good intentions or social curiosity of tech folk. We’ve watched as these platforms expanded in power and significance, selling their influence to advertisers. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google—they grew so fast. One day they’re a lovable new way to see kid pix, next thing you know they’re reconfiguring democracy, governance, and business.
Facebook’s recent debacle is illustrative. It turns out that the company let a researcher spider through its social network to gather information on 50 million people. Then the Steve Bannon-affiliated, Robert Mercer-backed U.K. data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica used that data to target likely Trump voters. Facebook responded that, no, this was not a “breach.”
OK, sure, let’s not call it a breach. It’s how things were designed to work. That’s the problem.For years we’ve been talking and thinking about social networks as interesting tools to model and understand human dynamics. But it’s no longer academic—Facebook has reached a scale where it’s not a model of society as much as an engine of culture. A researcher gained legitimate access to the platform and then just … kept going, and Cambridge Analytica ended up with those 50 million profiles. The “hack” was a true judo move that used the very nature of the platform against itself—like if you gave MacGyver a phone book and he somehow made it into a bomb.
What’s been unfolding for a while now is a rolling catastrophe so obvious we forget it’s happening. Private data are spilling out of banks, credit-rating providers, email providers, and social networks and ending up everywhere.
So this is an era of breaches and violations and stolen identities. Big companies can react nimbly when they fear regulation is actually on the horizon—for example, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have agreed to share data with researchers who are tracking disinformation, the result of a European Union commission on fake news. But for the most part we’re dealing with global entities that own the means whereby politicians garner votes, have vast access to capital to fund lobbying efforts, and are constitutionally certain of their own moral cause. That their platforms are used for awful ends is just a side effect on the way to global transparency, and shame on us for not seeing that.