What do Trump, Google, and Facebook Have in Common?

by | Oct 7, 2019

This year, the Trump Administration declared the need for a national privacy law to supersede a patchwork of state laws. But, as the year comes to a close, and amidst the impeachment inquiry, time is running out. Meanwhile, Google plans to roll out encrypted web addresses, and Facebook stalls research into social media’s effect on democracy. Do these three seek privacy or power?

The Trump Administration, Google, and Facebook claim that privacy is a priority, and… well… we’re still waiting for the proof. Over the last year, the news has been awash with privacy scandals and data breaches. Every day we hear promises that privacy is a priority and that a national privacy law is coming, but so far, the evidence of action is lacking. This begs the question, are politicians and businesses using the guise of “privacy” to manipulate people? Let’s take a closer look.

Congress and the Trump Administration: National Privacy Law

Earlier this year, Congress and the Trump Administration agreed they wanted a new federal privacy law to protect individuals online. This rare occurrence was even supported and campaigned for by major tech firms (read our blog “What is your data worth” to learn more). However, despite months of talks, “a national privacy law is nowhere in sight [and] [t]he window to pass a law this year is now quickly closing.” (Source)

Disagreement over enforcement and state-level power are said to be holding back progress. Thus, while senators, including Roger Wicker, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, insist they are working hard, there are no public results; and with the impeachment inquiry, it is possible we will not see any for some time (Source). This means that the White House will likely miss their self-appointed deadline of January 2020, when the CCPA goes into effect.

Originally, this plan was designed to avoid a patchwork of state-level legislature that can make it challenging for businesses to comply and weaken privacy care. It is not a simple process, and since “Congress has never set an overarching national standard for how most companies gather and use data.”, much work is needed to develop a framework to govern privacy on a national level (Source). However, there is evidence in Europe with GDPR, that a large governing structure can successfully hold organizations accountable to privacy standards. But how much longer will US residents need to wait?

Google Encryption: Privacy or Power

Google has been trying to get an edge above the competition for years by leveraging the mass troves of user data it acquires. Undoubtedly, their work has led to innovation that has redefined the way our world works, but our privacy has paid the price. Like never before, our data has become the new global currency, and Google has had a central part to play in the matter. 

Google has famously made privacy a priority and is currently working to enhance user privacy and security with encrypted web addresses.

Unencrypted web addresses are a major security risk, as they make it simple for malicious persons to intercept web traffic and use fake sites to gather data. However, in denying hackers this ability, power is given to companies like Google, who will be able to collect more user data than ever before. For the risk is “that control of encrypted systems sits with Google and its competitors.” (Source)

This is because encryption cuts out the middle layer of ISPs, and can change the mechanisms through which we access specific web pages. This could enable Google to become the centralized encryption DNS provider (Source).

Thus, while DoH is certainly a privacy and security upgrade, as opposed to the current DNS system, shifting from local middle layers to major browser enterprises centralizes user data, raising anti-competitive and child-protection concerns. Further, it diminishes law enforcement’s ability to blacklist dangerous sites and monitor those who visit them. This also opens new opportunities for hackers by reducing their ability to gather cybersecurity intelligence from malware activity that is an integral part of being able to fulfil government-mandated regulation (Source).

Nonetheless, this feature will roll out in a few weeks as the new default, despite the desire from those with DoH concerns to wait until learning more about the potential fallout.

Facebook and the Disinformation Fact Checkers

Over the last few years, Facebook has developed a terrible reputation as one of the least privacy-centric companies in the world. But it is accurate? After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, followed by endless cases of data privacy ethical debacles, Facebook stalls its “disinformation fact-checkers” on the grounds of privacy problems.

In April of 2018, Mark Zuckerburg announced that the company would develop machine learning to detect and manage misinformation on Facebook (Source). It then promised to share this information with non-profit researchers who would flag disinformation campaigns as part of an academic study on how social media is influencing democracies (Source). 

To ensure that the data being shared could not be traced back to individuals, Facebook applied differential privacy techniques.

However, upon sending this information, researchers complained data did not include enough information about the disinformation campaigns to allow them to derive meaningful results. Some even insisted that Facebook was going against the original agreement (Source). As a result, some of the people funding this initiative are considering backing out.

Initially, Facebook was given a deadline of September 30 to provide the full data sets, or the entire research grants program would be shut down. While they have begun offering more data in response, the full data sets have not been provided.

A spokesperson from Facebook says, “This is one of the largest sets of links ever to be created for academic research on this topic. We are working hard to deliver on additional demographic fields while safeguarding individual people’s privacy.” (Source). 

While Facebook may be limiting academic research on democracies, perhaps they are finally prioritizing privacy. And, at the end of the day with an ethical framework to move forward, through technological advancement and academic research, the impact of social media and democracy is still measurable without compromising privacy.

In the end, it is clear that privacy promises hold the potential to manipulate people into action. While the US government may not have a national privacy law anywhere in sight, the motives behind Google’s encrypted links may be questionable, and Facebook’s sudden prioritization of privacy may cut out democratic research, at least privacy is becoming a hot topic, and that holds promise for a privacy-centric future for the public.

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