DIGITAL IRON CURTAIN
EYEING ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS
MONOLOGUE WRITTEN BY CLYDE LEWIS
The internet is a constantly evolving entity, and so authoritarian regimes that wish to suppress free speech and constrain their population’s information access must constantly adapt to new. Eventually, massive censorship will simply be cost-prohibitive, however, at the moment it is being implemented by many countries including the United States.
Among the mega-corporations that surveil you, your cell phone carrier has always been one of the keenest monitors, in constant contact with the one small device you keep on you at almost every moment.
A confidential Facebook document reviewed by The Intercept’s Sam Biddle shows that the social network courts carriers, along with phone makers – some 100 different companies in 50 countries – by offering the use of even more surveillance data, pulled straight from your Smartphone by Facebook itself.
Offered to select Facebook partners, the data includes not just technical information about Facebook members’ devices and use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, but also their past locations, interests, and even their social groups. This data is sourced not just from the company’s main iOS and Android apps, but from Instagram and Messenger as well. The data has been used by Facebook partners to assess their standing against competitors, including customers lost to and won from them, but also for more controversial uses like racially targeted ads.
Some experts are particularly alarmed that Facebook has marketed the use of the information and appears to have helped directly facilitate its use, along with other Facebook data for the purpose of screening customers on the basis of likely creditworthiness. Such use could potentially run afoul of federal law, which tightly governs credit assessments.
Facebook said it does not provide creditworthiness services and that the data it provides to cell phone carriers and makers do not go beyond what it was already collecting for other uses.
Facebook’s cell phone partnerships are particularly worrisome because of the extensive surveillance powers already enjoyed by carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile: Just as your internet service provider is capable of watching the data that bounces between your home and the wider world, telecommunications companies have a privileged vantage point from which they can glean a great deal of information about how, when, and where you’re using your phone.
Now you would think that the degree of continuous monitoring would be more than sufficient for a communication giant to operate its business and perhaps for a while it was. But Facebook’s “Actionable Insights,” is a corporate data-sharing program that suggests that even the incredible visibility telecoms have into your daily life isn’t enough.
Actionable Insights was announced last year in an innocuous, easy-to-miss post on Facebook’s engineering blog. The article, titled “Announcing tools to help partners improve connectivity,” strongly suggested that the program was primarily aimed at solving weak cellular data connections around the world.
“To address this problem,” the post began, “we are building a diverse set of technologies, products, and partnerships designed to expand the boundaries of existing connectivity quality and performance, catalyze new market segments, and bring better access to the unconnected.” What sort of monster would stand against better access for the unconnected?
The blog post makes only a brief mention of Actionable Insights’ second, less altruistic purpose: “enabling better business decisions” through “analytics tools.” According to materials reviewed by The Intercept and a source directly familiar with the program, the real boon of Actionable Insights lies not in its ability to fix spotty connections, but to help chosen corporations use your personal data to buy more tightly targeted advertising.
The source, who discussed Actionable Insights on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press, explained that Facebook has offered the service to carriers and phone makers ostensibly of free charge, with access to Actionable Insights granted as a sweetener for advertising relationships. According to the source, the underlying value of granting such gratis access to Actionable Insights in these cases isn’t simply to help better service cell customers with weak signals, but also to ensure that telecoms and phone makers keep buying more and more carefully targeted Facebook ads. It’s exactly this sort of quasi-transactional data access that’s become a hallmark of Facebook’s business, allowing the company to plausibly deny that it ever sells your data while still leveraging it for revenue.
Facebook may not be “selling” data through Actionable Insights in the most baldly literal sense of the word but the relationship based on spending and monetization certainly fits the spirit of a sale.
The Facebook mobile app harvests and packages eight different categories of information for use by over 100 different telecom companies in over 50 different countries around the world, including usage data from the phones of children as young as 13.
These categories include the use of video, demographics, location, use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, personal interests, device information, and friend homophily, an academic term of art. A 2017 article on social media friendship from the Journal of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology defined “homophily” in this context as “the tendency of nodes to form relations with those who are similar to themselves.” In other words, Facebook is using your phone to not only provide behavioral data about you to cell phone carriers but about your friends as well.
This way a third party could learn an extraordinary amount about patterns of users’ daily life.
Think of all of that power — the slippery slope is that this tech has the power to target you.
Despite Facebook’s repeated assurances that user information is completely anonymized and aggregated, the Actionable Insights materials undermine this claim. One Actionable Insights case study from the overview document promotes how an unnamed North American cellular carrier had previously used its Actionable Insights access to target a specific, unnamed racial group. Facebook’s targeting of “multicultural affinity groups,” as the company formerly referred to race, was discontinued in 2017 after the targeting practice was widely criticized as potentially discriminatory.
Another case study described how Actionable Insights can be used to single out individual customers on the basis of credit worthiness. In this example, Facebook explained how one of its advertising clients, based outside the U.S., wanted to exclude individuals from future promotional offers on the basis of their credit. Using data provided through Actionable Insights, a Data Science Strategist, a role for which Facebook continues to hire, was able to generate profiles of customers with desirable and undesirable credit standings. The advertising client then used these profiles to target or exclude Facebook users who resembled these profiles.
Now this seems to mirror China’s already-prevalent ‘Social Credit’ system – which is a rating assigned to each citizen based on government data regarding their economic and social status – The Washington Post reported last year that Facebook has begun to assign its users a reputation score, predicting their trustworthiness on a scale from zero to one.
China also is using their Credit policies to track and shut down websites that are not government friendly – it can be argued that Facebook seems to be in the business of shutting down Facebook forums of controversial people – or people they or their advertisers don’t approve of.
Last year it was reported that China shut down thousands of websites and online accounts in a campaign against what they call “harmful” online information.
China keeps the internet under tight control and has been cracking down on a range of illegal online activities including pornography, gambling, religious proselytizing and even “spreading rumors.”
This is part of their so-called, Gamification of Trust campaign, here in the United States it is called, government censorship.
President Trump sent shockwaves throughout the tech industry last week with an executive order that declared a national emergency and barred American companies from doing business with companies deemed a national security risk.
Days later, the effects have started to become apparent as companies from Google to Intel have taken action to comply, shutting Chinese tech giant, Huawei, out of supply chains and stopping it from using US software.
The executive order didn’t target Huawei specifically, and since some of the concern around the company relates to Chinese law that demands local firms cooperate with the government, other Chinese companies could theoretically be affected. But the US Department of Commerce did single out Huawei last week for inclusion on the Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List, which details companies considered to be a potential national security threat.
It appears the pieces are now being moved on the technotronic chessboard. It is creating what is being called a digital Iron Curtain.
For those of us that remember the Cold War, there is news on the horizon that could be another one around the corner. Obviously this time it is not with Russia – it is with China and the fight is over technology, 5G networks, and the imposed Digital Iron Curtain.
Under a censorship regime, China has blocked access to many U.S. internet companies for years. But there was still a cross-border flow of components, business, and ideas; however, that may not be happening any longer.
The U.S. indictments against Chinese Tech giant, Huawei, are set to significantly worsen already tense relations between China and the United States. As America pressures allies to drop Huawei and other Chinese firms, U.S. and European officials point to China’s own laws as evidence that even private firms are potential arms of the Chinese state, and the political atmosphere grows colder in Beijing, the vision of a world brought together through technology has turned cold.
Is tech the main battlefield in a new global struggle between two superpowers? Are there any prospects for de-escalation?
We may be setting ourselves up for active cyber-warfare.
China is the best-documented case of state-sponsored internet suppression, one that has continued for over a decade despite massive growth in internet usage. The Golden Shield project a.k.a. the Great Firewall of China originated in an attempt to silence political dissent and has continued to be one of the most successful systems to prevent information distribution within a country’s borders.
Since China introduced the internet in 1994, its government has had to come up with more elaborate ways to stymie the flow of information, or at least to prune it carefully. The government incurred a significant economic burden as it continued sifting through what it perceived as potentially harmful data and deleting content.
Russia, on the other hand, has taken a very different approach to internet censorship, avoiding the huge costs and the need to delete content.
Press coverage has been favorable towards Russia as it has been reported that the Internet in Russia is the freest area of the media, where almost all television and many newspapers are under formal or unofficial government control.”
But in a country where the information is easy to distribute, how can the government remove incentives for posting this kind of information? Kremlin strategists decided to use the tried-and-true method of kidnapping, abuse, threatening, and overloading citizenry with state-run media, attempting to simply dilute the voice of the opposition through massive misinformation campaigns.
Huawei is a leading provider of 5G networking equipment, at least in countries that the US hasn’t persuaded not to use it, and much of it relies on American suppliers like Intel, Broadcom, and Xilinx. The ban on trade could certainly delay Huawei’s moves to supply 5G equipment to countries around the world, and the American companies’ business, in turn, could be adversely affected.
Bloomberg reports that Huawei has stockpiled at least three month’s worth of components in anticipation of this situation, but beyond that, the company may need to seek alternatives. If your local provider is building out its 5G network using Huawei gear then delays could very well be on the horizon.
If Huawei gains a foothold in global 5G networks, Washington fears this will give Beijing an unprecedented opportunity to attack critical infrastructure and compromise intelligence sharing with key allies. Senior Western security officials say this could involve cyber attacks on public utilities, communication networks, and key financial centers.
In any military clash, such attacks would amount to a dramatic change in the nature of war, inflicting economic harm and disrupting civilian life far from the conflict without bullets, bombs or blockades. To be sure, China would also be vulnerable to attacks from the U.S. and its allies.
We are being told that 5G technology is expected to deliver a huge leap in the speed and capacity of communications. Downloading data may be up to 100 times faster than on current networks.
But 5G isn’t only about faster data. The upgrade will see an exponential spike in the number of connections between the billions of devices, from smart fridges to driverless cars, that are expected to run on the 5G network. “It’s not just that there will be more people with multiple devices, but it will be machines talking to machines, devices talking to devices.
This configuration of 5G networks means there are many more points of entry for a hostile power or group to conduct cyber warfare against the critical infrastructure of a target nation or community. That threat is magnified if an adversary has supplied equipment in the network, U.S. officials say.
If China and the United States have begun a technological Cold War, then the Huawei order can best be seen as the beginnings of a digital Iron Curtain. In this potential vision of the future of technology, China will continue to keep out much of the world. The United States and many other countries who have this thinking, will, in turn, block Chinese technology.
The attack on Huawei is also taking place against the backdrop of a worsening trade war, making it one piece on a larger game board. Many worry that this could lead to the extremes of a possible digital Pearl Harbor.
If China were to take our mainframe down or shut down our communication satellites, we would certainly have to surrender to their technological expertise. It is also important to say at this juncture that when satellites go down or are offline – things are moved into positions that they don’t want us to see—scrambling or shutting down a signal could indicate that a malicious actor could make a move.
Put simply, the Intelligence Community within the CIA and NSA would deaf, dumb, and partially blind.
This would be a perfect scenario to carry out a final blow event.
In the end, we know that China will continue to be a threat to US proprietary technology and intellectual property through cyber-enabled means or other methods.
Huawei is one of China’s most important technology companies, and therefore a prime target in the Trump administration’s campaign to slow or stop China’s advance into several high-tech sectors. America’s motivations in this economic war are partly commercial to protect and favor lagging American companies and partly geopolitical. They certainly have nothing to do with upholding the international rule of law.
When we look at national security and actions within the states, Facebook’s active Censorship and Actionable Insights programs mirror the ugliness of China and yet we see nothing happening to the company.
It is just business as usual in the cyber apocalypse – and with the new tech Cold War, we may want to think about the example and precedent we set in the west.