Is America’s national security Facebook and Google’s problem?

Outrage that Facebook made the private data of over 87 million of its U.S. users available to the Trump campaign has stoked fears of big US-based technology companies are tracking our every move and misusing our personal data to manipulate us without adequate transparency, oversight, or regulation.

These legitimate concerns about the privacy threat these companies potentially pose must be balanced by an appreciation of the important role data-optimizing companies like these play in promoting our national security.

In his testimony to the combined US Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was not wrong to present his company as a last line of defense in an “ongoing arms race” with Russia and others seeking to spread disinformation and manipulate political and economic systems in the US and around the world.

The vast majority of the two billion Facebook users live outside the United States, Zuckerberg argued, and the US should be thinking of Facebook and other American companies competing with foreign rivals in “strategic and competitive” terms. Although the American public and US political leaders are rightly grappling with critical issues of privacy, we will harm ourselves if we don’t recognize the validity of Zuckerberg’s national security argument.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a US House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 11, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Examples are everywhere of big tech companies increasingly being seen as a threat. US President Trump has been on a rampage against Amazon, and multiple media outlets have called for the company to be broken up as a monopoly. A recent New York Times article, “The Case Against Google,” argued that Google is stifling competition and innovation and suggested it might be broken up as a monopoly. “It’s time to break up Facebook,” Politico argued, calling Facebook “a deeply untransparent, out-of-control company that encroaches on its users’ privacy, resists regulatory oversight and fails to police known bad actors when they abuse its platform.” US Senator Bill Nelson made a similar point when he asserted during the Senate hearings that “if Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix the privacy invasions, then we are going to have to. We, the Congress.”

While many concerns like these are valid, seeing big US technology companies solely in the context of fears about privacy misses the point that these companies play a far broader strategic role in America’s growing geopolitical rivalry with foreign adversaries. And while Russia is rising as a threat in cyberspace, China represents a more powerful and strategic rival in the 21st century tech convergence arms race.

Data is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th, a key asset for driving wealth, power, and competitiveness. Only companies with access to the best algorithms and the biggest and highest quality data sets will be able to glean the insights and develop the models driving innovation forward. As Facebook’s failure to protect its users’ private information shows, these date pools are both extremely powerful and can be abused. But because countries with the leading AI and pooled data platforms will have the most thriving economies, big technology platforms are playing a more important national security role than ever in our increasingly big data-driven world.

 

BEIJING, CHINA – 2017/07/08: Robots dance for the audience on the expo. On Jul. 8th, Beijing International Consumer electronics Expo was held in Beijing China National Convention Center. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

China, which has set a goal of becoming “the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2025, occupying “the commanding heights of AI technology” by 2030, and the “global leader” in “comprehensive national strength and international influence” by 2050, understands this. To build a world-beating AI industry, Beijing has kept American tech giants out of the Chinese market for years and stolen their intellectual property while putting massive resources into developing its own strategic technology sectors in close collaboration with national champion companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

Examples of China’s progress are everywhere.

Close to a billion Chinese people use Tencent’s instant communication and cashless platforms. In October 2017, Alibaba announced a three-year investment of $15 billion for developing and integrating AI and cloud-computing technologies that will power the smart cities and smart hospitals of the future. Beijing is investing $9.2 billion in the golden combination of AI and genomics to lead personalized health research to new heights. More ominously, Alibaba is prototyping a new form of ubiquitous surveillance that deploys millions of cameras equipped with facial recognition within testbed cities and another Chinese company, Cloud Walk, is using facial recognition to track individuals’ behaviors and assess their predisposition to commit a crime.

In all of these areas, China is ensuring that individual privacy protections do not get in the way of bringing together the massive data sets Chinese companies will need to lead the world. As Beijing well understands, training technologists, amassing massive high-quality data sets, and accumulating patents are key to competitive and security advantage in the 21st century.

“In the age of AI, a U.S.-China duopoly is not just inevitable, it has already arrived,” said Kai-Fu Lee, founder and CEO of Beijing-based technology investment firm Sinovation Ventures and a former top executive at Microsoft and Google. The United States should absolutely not follow China’s lead and disregard the privacy protections of our citizens. Instead, we must follow Europe’s lead and do significantly more to enhance them. But we also cannot blind ourselves to the critical importance of amassing big data sets for driving innovation, competitiveness, and national power in the future.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 24: Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In its 2017 unclassified budget, the Pentagon spent about $7.4 billion on AI, big data and cloud-computing, a tiny fraction of America’s overall expenditure on AI. Clearly, winning the future will not be a government activity alone, but there is a big role government can and must play. Even though Google remains the most important AI company in the world, the U.S. still crucially lacks a coordinated national strategy on AI and emerging digital technologies. While the Trump administration has gutted the white house Office of Science and Technology Policy, proposed massive cuts to US science funding, and engaged in a sniping contest with American tech giants, the Chinese government has outlined a “military-civilian integration development strategy” to harness AI to enhance Chinese national power.

FBI Director Christopher Wray correctly pointed out that America has now entered a “whole of society” rivalry with China. If the United States thinks of our technology champions solely within our domestic national framework, we might spur some types of innovation at home while stifling other innovations that big American companies with large teams and big data sets may be better able to realize.

America will be more innovative the more we nurture a healthy ecosystem of big, AI driven companies while also empowering smaller startups and others using blockchain and other technologies to access large and disparate data pools. Because breaking up US technology giants without a sufficient analysis of both the national and international implications of this step could deal a body blow to American prosperity and global power in the 21st century, extreme caution is in order.

America’s largest technology companies cannot and should not be dragooned to participate in America’s growing geopolitical rivalry with China. Based on recent protests by Google employees against the company’s collaboration with the US defense department analyzing military drone footage, perhaps they will not.

But it would be self-defeating for American policymakers to not at least partly consider America’s tech giants in the context of the important role they play in America’s national security. America definitely needs significantly stronger regulation to foster innovation and protect privacy and civil liberties but breaking up America’s tech giants without appreciating the broader role they are serving to strengthen our national competitiveness and security would be a tragic mistake.

Pure Storage teams with Nvidia on GPU-fueled Flash storage solution for AI

As companies gather increasing amounts of data, they face a choice over bottlenecks. They can have it in the storage component or the backend compute system. Some companies have attacked the problem by using GPUs to streamline the back end problem or Flash storage to speed up the storage problem. Pure Storage wants to give customers the best of both worlds.

Today it announced, Airi, a complete data storage solution for AI workloads in a box.

Under the hood Airi starts with a Pure Storage FlashBlade, a storage solution that Pure created specifically with AI and machine learning kind of processing in mind. NVidia contributes the pure power with four NVIDIA DGX-1 supercomputers, delivering four petaFLOPS of performance with NVIDIA ® Tesla ® V100 GPUs. Arista provides the networking hardware to make it all work together with Arista 100GbE switches. The software glue layer comes from the NVIDIA GPU Cloud deep learning stack and Pure Storage AIRI Scaling Toolkit.

Photo: Pure Storage

One interesting aspect of this deal is that the FlashBlade product operates as a separate product inside of the Pure Storage organization. They have put together a team of engineers with AI and data pipeline understanding with the focus inside the company on finding ways to move beyond the traditional storage market and find out where the market is going.

This approach certainly does that, but the question is do companies want to chase the on-prem hardware approach or take this kind of data to the cloud. Pure would argue that the data gravity of AI workloads would make this difficult to achieve with a cloud solution, but we are seeing increasingly large amounts of data moving to the cloud with the cloud vendors providing tools for data scientists to process that data.

If companies choose to go the hardware route over the cloud, each vendor in this equation — whether Nvidia, Pure Storage or Arista — should benefit from a multi-vendor sale. The idea ultimately is to provide customers with a one-stop solution they can install quickly inside a data center if that’s the approach they want to take.

Facebook suspends Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm that worked on the Trump campaign

Facebook announced late Friday that it had suspended the account of Strategic Communication Laboratories, and its political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica — which used Facebook data to target voters for President Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election. In a statement released by Paul Grewal, the company’s vice president and deputy general counsel, Facebook explained that the suspension was the result of a violation of its platform policies. The company noted that the very unusual step of a public blog post explaining the decision to act against Cambridge Analytica was due to “the public prominence of this organization.”

Facebook claims that back in 2015 Cambridge Analytica obtained Facebook user information without approval from the social network through work the company did with a University of Cambridge psychology professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan. Kogan developed an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” that purported to offer a personality prediction in the form of “a research app used by psychologists.”

Apparently around 270,000 people downloaded the app, which used Facebook Login and granted Kogan access to users’ geographic information, content they had liked, and limited information about users’ friends. While Kogan’s method of obtaining personal information aligned with Facebook’s policies, “he did not subsequently abide by our rules,” Grewal stated in the Facebook post.

“By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”

Facebook said it first identified the violation in 2015 and took action — apparently without informing users of the violation. The company demanded that Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Wylie certify that they had destroyed the information.

Over the past few days, Facebook said it received reports (from sources it would not identify) that not all of the data Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie collected had been deleted. While Facebook investigates the matter further, the company said it had taken the step to suspend the Cambridge Analytica account as well as the accounts of Kogan and Wylie.

Depending on who you ask, UK-based Cambridge Analytica either played a pivotal role in the U.S. presidential election or cooked up an effective marketing myth to spin into future business. Last year, a handful of former Trump aides and Republican consultants dismissed the potency of Cambridge Analytica’s so-called secret sauce as “exaggerated” in a profile by the New York Times. A May 2017 profile in the Guardian that painted the Robert Mercer-funded data company as shadowy and all-powerful resulted in legal action on behalf of Cambridge Analytica. Last October, the Daily Beast reported that Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix contacted Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with an offer to help disseminate Hillary Clinton’s controversial missing emails.

In an interview with TechCrunch late last year, Nix said that his company had detailed hundreds of thousands of profiles of Americans throughout 2014 and 2015 (the time when the company was working with Sen. Ted Cruz on his presidential campaign).

…We used psychographics all through the 2014 midterms. We used psychographics all through the Cruz and Carson primaries. But when we got to Trump’s campaign in June 2016, whenever it was, there it was there was five and a half months till the elections. We just didn’t have the time to rollout that survey. I mean, Christ, we had to build all the IT, all the infrastructure. There was nothing. There was 30 people on his campaign. Thirty. Even Walker it had 160 (it’s probably why he went bust). And he was the first to crash out. So as I’ve said to other of your [journalist] colleagues, clearly there’s psychographic data that’s baked-in to legacy models that we built before, because we’re not reinventing the wheel. [We’ve been] using models that are based on models, that are based on models, and we’ve been building these models for nearly four years. And all of those models had psychographics in them. But did we go out and rollout a long form quantitive psychographics survey specifically for Trump supporters? No. We just didn’t have time. We just couldn’t do that.

The key implication here is that data leveraged in the Trump campaign could have originated with Kogan before being shared to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policy. The other implication is that Cambridge Analytica may not have destroyed that data back in 2015.

The tools that Cambridge Analytica deployed have been at the heart of recent criticism of Facebook’s approach to handling advertising and promoted posts on the social media platform.

Nix credits the fact that advertising was ahead of most political messaging and that traditional political operatives hadn’t figured out that the tools used for creating ad campaigns could be so effective in the political arena.

“There’s no question that the marketing and advertising world is ahead of the political marketing the political communications world,” Nix told TechCrunch last year. “…There are some things which [are] best practice digital advertising, best practice communications which we’re taking from the commercial world and are bringing into politics.”

Responding to the allegations, Cambridge Analytica sent the following statement.

In 2014, SCL Elections contracted Dr. Kogan via his company Global Science Research (GSR) to undertake a large scale research project in the US. GSR was contractually committed to only obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent. GSR were also contractually the Data Controller (as per Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act) for any collected data. The language in the SCL Elections contract with GSR is explicit on these points. GSR subsequently obtained Facebook data via an API provided by Facebook. When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, SCL Elections deleted all data it had received from GSR. For the avoidance of doubt, no data from GSR was used in the work we did in the 2016 US presidential election.

Under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act (Unlawful obtaining etc. of personal data), a criminal offense has not been committed if a person has acted in the reasonable belief that he had in law the right to obtain data. GSR was a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding the its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections. It would be entirely incorrect to attempt to claim that SCL Elections

illegally acquired Facebook data. Indeed SCL Elections worked with Facebook over this period to ensure that they were satisfied that SCL Elections had not knowingly breached any of Facebook’s Terms of Service and also provided a signed statement to confirm that all Facebook data and their derivatives had been deleted.

Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections do not use or hold Facebook data.