Social Media and National Security
When Mark Zuckerberg attended the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, few people asked the question why a social media entrepreneur was invited to the world’s most elite international security and military conference. Indeed, once a year, presidents, secretaries of states, military leaders and intelligence community officials from around the world come together to discuss solutions to combat international security threats, military crises, and geopolitical challenges.
Facebook’s participation in this debate is no coincidence. Year after year, social media platforms have become essential information sources for law enforcement agencies around the world. After all, with over two billion users, Facebook alone stores unimaginable amounts of global user data from contact information, to geographic locations, interrelation records, communications, but also military footage and information about members connected to, for example, military operations and economic leaders.
Historically, when talking about Facebook in the context of storing or sharing sensitive user information, critics of Facebook often raise privacy concerns and litigate Mr. Zuckerberg for failing to adequate warn and protect consumers about the processing and commercialization of their user information and online search behavior. Advertisers and businesses worldwide are the recipients of such data collections.
In the shadow of this dispute over consumer privacy rights, intelligence agencies have discovered the enormous information fundus available from social media. Today, it is no longer uncommon practice in criminal investigations to review or subpoena social media records to tie people to particular statements, events, or locations. Much of this cooperation between intelligence agencies and social media is classified. However, for the United States, public records suggest a steady increase of so-called FBI National Security Letter (NSL) requests to Facebook under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and the USA PATRIOT Act.
Is the frequently criticized giant Facebook after all keeping us safer? A reevaluation may be in order. Instead of simply condemning Facebook for its exploitation of privacy information, we should recognize that the United States, Russia, and China are in the beginning of an escalating war of information. National security in the old sense referred to spies with suitcases smuggling printed files across the border to the enemy. National security in today’s world encompasses digital data to influence entire populations for political purposes by spreading propaganda. It appears that Facebook, a U.S. company, possesses some of the tools that are needed in what Mr. Zuckerberg himself described the “ongoing arms race” between the United States, Russia, and China during his 2018 Congressional testimony.
Important questions emerge to stimulate debate. To what extent is Facebook sharing personal information with U.S. and/or foreign intelligence agencies? How involved is Facebook in national security investigations? Is Facebook turning into a quasi-governmental agency despite the company’s public rejection of such goal or desire? Is Facebook providing national security information to any country so requesting— or just U.S. allies? Who monitors what information Facebook shares with governmental actors? Why is there litigation and outcry about privacy concerns when sharing information with commercial vendors but not when information is handed to, hypothetically, a Turkey government intelligence agency to investigate members of the Kurdish minority?
Despite these and many other open questions, at the end of the day, whether we like it or not, Facebook and other social media platforms may be a very much needed and appreciated American ally in the ongoing cyberwar. Let’s make sure that information beneficial to all of us will be used responsibly and in support of the right causes.
Dr. Nick Oberheiden is a federal litigation attorney and founder of Oberheiden P.C.