News Release

The Real Threat: Facebook and Google’s Business Model

YASHA LEVINE, mail at yashalevine.com, @yashalevine
Levine is an investigative journalist and author of the new book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. He just wrote the piece “The Cambridge Analytica Con” for The Baffler, which states: “This week, Cambridge Analytica, the British election data outfit funded by billionaire Robert Mercer and linked to Steven Bannon and President Donald Trump, blew up the news cycle. …

“Our present-day freakout over Cambridge Analytica needs to be put in the broader historical context of our decades-long complacency over Silicon Valley’s business model. The fact is that companies like Facebook and Google are the real malicious actors here — they are vital public communications systems that run on profiling and manipulation for private profit without any regulation or democratic oversight from the society in which it operates. But, hey, let’s blame Cambridge Analytica. Or better yet, take a cue from the [New York] Times and blame the Russians along with Cambridge Analytica. …

“Commerce in user data permitted Facebook to earn $40 billion last year, while Google raked in $110 billion. …

“What do these companies know about us, their users? Well, just about everything. Silicon Valley of course keeps a tight lid on this information, but you can get a glimpse of the kinds of data our private digital dossiers contain by trawling through their patents. Take, for instance, a series of patents Google filed in the mid-2000s for its Gmail-targeted advertising technology. The language, stripped of opaque tech jargon, revealed that just about everything we enter into Google’s many products and platforms — from email correspondence to Web searches and internet browsing — is analyzed and used to profile users in an extremely invasive and personal way. …

“There’s another, bigger cultural issue with the way we’ve begun to examine and discuss Cambridge Analytica’s battery of internet-based influence ops. People are still dazzled by the idea that the internet, in its pure, untainted form, is some kind of magic machine distributing democracy and egalitarianism across the globe with the touch of a few keystrokes. …

“Cambridge Analytica is a subsidiary of the SCL Group, a military contractor set up by a spooky huckster named Nigel Oakes that sells itself as a high-powered conclave of experts specializing in data-driven counterinsurgency. It’s done work for the Pentagon, NATO and the UK Ministry of Defense in places like Afghanistan and Nepal, where it says it ran a ‘campaign to reduce and ultimately stop the large numbers of Maoist insurgents in Nepal from breaking into houses in remote areas to steal food, harass the homeowners and cause disruption.’

“In the grander scheme of high-tech counterinsurgency boondoggles, which features such storied psy-ops outfits as Peter Thiel’s Palantir and Cold War dinosaurs like Lockheed Martin, the SCL Group appears to be a comparatively minor player. Nevertheless, its ambitious claims to reconfigure the world order with some well-placed algorithms recalls one of the first major players in the field: Simulatics, a 1960s counterinsurgency military contractor that pioneered data-driven election campaigns and whose founder, Ithiel de Sola Pool, helped shape the development of the early internet as a surveillance and counterinsurgency technology.”