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The world’s largest social media platforms, thanks in large part to the tremendous amount of personal data that they collect on all of us, are increasingly becoming targets of foreign counter-intelligence and corporate espionage efforts. Case in point: it now appears as if the government of Saudi Arabia specifically recruited at least two Twitter employees to gather personal data on journalists and activists who might represent a threat. And that follows on the heels of the revelation that Chinese spies might be using LinkedIn as a platform to recruit foreign agents and gain access to sensitive corporate intellectual property. So what’s the next move in this foreign spy game?
Options to keep social media platforms safe
One option, of course, is for the social media platforms themselves to self-police and self-regulate. But, as we’ve seen from the past 18 months of various privacy scandals and abuses of personal information at big Silicon Valley giants, the days of self-regulation may soon be coming to a close. Does anyone seriously believe anything that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says anymore? Most people don’t trust any of the big Silicon Valley tech giants anymore.
The second option would be for the U.S. government to get involved. This might involve greater regulatory oversight over the big social media tech giants, as well as potential fines and penalties from the FTC for any companies that fail to clean up their platforms. But this is hardly a great alternative, because it’s not like the U.S. government can step in and ban Facebook from accepting users from Saudi Arabia or China. Plus, once the government steps in, it opens up a whole new world of issues.
For example, there is a slippery slope when it comes to restricting freedom of speech or limiting freedom of expression. There’s a lot made about the censorship of free speech in China, and how the Chinese government systematically eliminates any voices that might be detrimental to the long-term value of the Communist Party. So – while this thought might be a bit jarring to some – how is the Chinese government banning democratic activists from Chinese social media platforms any different from the U.S. government banning communist spies from U.S. social media platforms?
New federal privacy regulations on the horizon
One thing is certain: the United States is almost certain to get a new federal privacy law sometime in 2020, and that would be a great opportunity to lay out some of the rules of the road for dealing with foreign spies. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect on January 1, and two Silicon Valley congresswomen have already proposed a new federal privacy bill that includes some really smart thinking about the way we currently use social media platforms today. This could be the starting point for national legislation that outlines how Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn should deal with the new risk of corporate espionage and diplomatic spying from foreign rivals. At the very least, social media giants could use strong encryption for all personal data that they store so that it’s simply not possible for social media employees to steal the personal data of users and then share it with rogue nation-states.