The Breaking of the Online Trust

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the concept of trust and security online. First there was the massive hack of Equifax, a company that touches almost every American but which almost no one has any direct dealings with. It collects information on you from the banks individuals *do* do business with, repackages it and sells it back to them so they can sell you more finely-tailored financial products you won’t be able to afford when the interest rate balloons or which don’t offer nearly the guarantee you were promised. That hack increasingly, according to reports, has fingerprints consistent with state-sponsored actors, meaning it may be a foreign government that has now gained access to the personal information of American citizens.

Just today Yahoo revealed that nope, it wasn’t just one-third of its user base that was exposed in a 2013 hack but basically everyone with a Yahoo account. That’s actually just one of two wide-ranging hacks it was the victim of.

Finally, of course, there’s the ongoing failure of Facebook, Google and Twitter to provide any sort of oversight to the quality of news being shared and shown to users. 4Chan has shown up in Google “Top Stories” displays, Russian Television has shown up in Facebook’s Trending Stories and more. These platforms, which two-thirds of Americans report using for at least part of their news consumption, are throwing up their hands and saying “but it’s hard” in the face of calls for them to better manage their networks.

In all these cases there’s one constant: What’s being sought and exposed is data we have willingly volunteered, often in exchange for an easy and convenient online experience. We’ve filled out the forms with our date of birth and other details and trusted these companies to keep it safe.

These companies are in the business of using that data to make money. As I stated, Equifax is basically a data science firm, more interested in how your information can be grouped and categorized than anything else. Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook and Google all use that data – either what we fill in ourselves or what it accumulates through constant monitoring of our behavior – to sell advertising that’s more and more narrowly targeted.

It’s a level of surveillance that would drive a conspiracy theorist into a frenzy. And now we’re realizing that it’s not only valuable to those who have pinky-sworn to use it to help us but also to those with hidden, and potentially more nefarious, motivations.

It’s becoming more and more clear that Russian powers of some sort used Facebook’s targeting tools to show ads in Michigan and Wisconsin (and likely elsewhere) meant to destabilize our political system, spreading anti-Muslim and other racist propaganda that wound up playing a pivotal role in key swing states in the last election. Who knows to what end China would use this kind of data, much less other countries even more openly antagonistic toward the U.S.

The internet has grown on the idea that trust and safety were paramount. Now we’re seeing that the large companies playing a role in the increased centralization of power online have no interest in those concepts. They want to play the role of the dumb, agnostic speech facilitator. In reality the algorithms they use shape the public conversation in thousands of tiny ways, all of which are invisible and outside the control of the individual user.

This person’s voice is magnified because they can game the algorithm. That person’s voice is diminished because speaking up only brings out the sexist trolls who skirt the technicalities of terms of service and it’s just not worth the hassle. And the company providing the platform gets to feel superior because they’ve convinced themselves they’re simply allowing for the free exchange of ideas, not ad networks who will sell your soul for a thousand additional impressions.

If there’s such a thing as late-stage social networking, I believe we’re in it. We’re now seeing the true cost of doing business on these platforms. Legitimate publishers can’t reach an audience without buying ads (which cost more than they will make in return) while purveyors of fake news rake in the dollars by appealing to our most base instincts and propensity to not fact-check what our friends have shared to their profiles.

This system can’t continue much longer without real, systemic change. The only hope we have is that it comes before either our society is mortally wounded, either through the manipulation of politics or by the mass victimization of half the population by malicious forces.

Securing our online systems against intrusion and misuse by foreign or other agents is as critical to our security as the safety of our power grid, nuclear facilities, and other necessary utilities. If they are compromised we’re all put in danger of that information which has been volunteered by or gathered on us being misused. That may take the form of something overtly criminal such as identity theft or as the dissemination of propaganda meant to undermine the very foundation of our lives.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.