A former CIA agent wants tighter controls around how tech giants use personal data

Yael Eisenstat said during her recent visit to Sydney that it's time for governments to step up the level of regulation.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

She might consider herself as someone who doesn't easily open up to others, but Yael Eisenstat, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer and special advisor on national security to former Vice President Joe Biden, has argued that governments have a responsibility to lift regulations surrounding how tech giants use data to fuel the growth of their companies.

"I don't want them regulated as a publisher. What they're doing is more dangerous. They're curating our content. They're deciding what we do or do not see. They're deciding which rabbit holes to take us down and what filter bubbles to put us in, and if they're curating our content then they need to be classified as digital curators and regulated that way," she said.

"You can't tell me they bear no responsibility for the content they put out there if they are curating your content."

During her visit to Sydney as part of D61+ Live last month, Eisenstat, who also worked briefly at Facebook to head up the company's social media integrity operations after being caught in election meddling issues, spoke bluntly about her concerns around the ferocious approach tech giants have taken to grab the attention of users.

"Advertising in itself is not necessarily the problem, it's the fact these [technology] companies have taken all the advertising away from what used to be a regulated market -- think TV and newspapers -- and really brought it into their platforms," she said.

"But they may not be selling our data to advertising companies, but they are selling to advertisers this idea that they have so much data on us they know exactly how to target us with exactly what we want to see. 

"Why is that problem? Because in order to do so, their number one metric they need to care about is user engagement. They have to be able to keep you on their platform … the business model tries to ensure you're are addicted to their technology so badly they can target you."

She continued describing how the engines of these companies are "bringing us down more and more extreme paths, and it's wrecking our ability to see that we're even being manipulated".

See also: How data analytics help companies and customers connect on social media (TechRepublic)

While engineers may be the designers behind these "addictive" platforms, Eisenstat doesn't necessarily blame them.

"I don't think it's the engineers who sat there and thought let's show somebody who is trying to look up the NASA moon landing … a conspiracy video …The algorithm has figured out if I show you slightly more extreme content than the last thing you saw, you will click and watch."

Eisenstat's concerns are not unique. She joins a growing list of other individuals and organisations who are equally disturbed by the dominance of these technology giants.

Just last week, Facebook and Google were slammed by Amnesty International for having "surveillance-based" business models that "poses a systemic threat to human rights".

In its 60-page Surveillance Giant report [PDF], the human rights organisation called for governments to overhaul regulation to ensure the likes of Google and Facebook are prevented from making access to their service conditional on individuals "consenting" to the collection, processing, or sharing of their personal data for marketing or advertising.

"The internet is vital for people to enjoy many of their rights, yet billions of people have no meaningful choice but to access this public space on terms dictated by Facebook and Google," said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, who described the control that these companies have as insidious.

"To make it worse, this isn't the internet people signed up for when these platforms started out. Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time. We are now trapped.

"Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery -- where our data is easily weaponised to manipulate and influence us -- or forego the benefits of the digital world. This can never be a legitimate choice. We must reclaim this essential public square, so we can participate without having our rights abused."

The scathing analysis by the organisation and outcry from Eisenstat follows on from when Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom jointly requesting for Facebook to stop end-to-end encryption.

In a letter to Facebook last month, the three countries said that the company "should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content" as the governments believe encryption will put citizens and societies at risk of child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign interference.

They also called for Facebook to allow law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format; engage in consultation with governments to facilitate lawful access and allow this to influence Facebook's design decisions; and to not implement any encryption changes. 

Read more: Facebook data privacy scandal: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

In July, Facebook agreed to pay a record $5 billion fine and agreed to conduct an overhaul of its consumer privacy practices as part of a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  

The FTC launched an investigation, following the events of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, alleging that Facebook repeatedly used "deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users' privacy preferences" in violation of its 2012 agreement with the FTC. The FTC also alleged that Facebook was inadequate in dealing with apps that it knew were violating its platform policies.

Going forward, Facebook said it would be required to conduct a privacy review of every new product, service, or practice it develops before it's implemented, as well as establish an independent privacy committee to strip Zuckerberg of his "unfettered control" over user privacy decisions. 

As a result of these reviews, Facebook announced in September that it suspended tens of thousands of apps from about 400 developers.

Facebook also pledged that it would impose stricter rules on political advertisers ahead of the 2020 election as part of its ongoing efforts to bolster ad transparency.

As of June 2019, the social media giant touted it had more than 2.1 billion people using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger every day every day on average, and 1.59 billion daily active Facebook users.

In Australia alone, the social network raked in AU$125.5 million dollars for the year ended 31 December 2018, and of that AU$125 million was from its online advertising sales.

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