Big Tech has no claim to moral high ground

By Rachael Falk, as published in The Australian, 18 January 2021

By Rachael Falk, CEO, Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre 

Picture: AFP

On a sunny winter morning in San Bernardino, California, Syed Farook and his wife Tasheen Malik, slaughtered 14 people in a hail of machine gun fire. It took a matter of minutes.

The victims were Farook’s colleagues at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, who were gathered together on 2 December, 2015, for their staff Christmas party.

Farook and Malik were homegrown Islamic terrorists, radicalised online and inspired by Islamic state. They also died that day in a firefight with police.

Neither Farook nor Malik were on the radar of intelligence agencies – they led normal lives, there were no red flags.

This left the FBI scrambling for answers – how were they radicalised, were they part of a larger sleeper cell, would there be more attacks? The FBI believed an Apple iPhone belonging to Farook held some of the answers.

But there was a problem. The phone was encrypted, locked shut with a four-digit passcode that authorities could not crack – and the FBI needed Apple’s help.

But, despite the death, carnage and desperate search for answers, Apple refused, choosing to protect the privacy of a dead terrorist and stating such a move would threaten the security of its customers.

In an open letter published on 16 February, 2016, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wrote: “While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect”. 

While some saw Apple’s position as noble, it ultimately set in train a growing trend by big tech companies to act as powers unto themselves. It provided an opportunity to hide behind notions of customer privacy and the common good when, at the heart of such decisions, it would be naïve not to think the central aim is profit. It is also a great paradox, given Apple seemingly has no issues doing business and manufacturing its products in countries known for systematic and sustained human rights abuses.

Last week, when Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were suspended for good, social media was abuzz with platitudes, applause and back-slapping.

The high moral ground had been taken, many proclaimed. The demagogue was gone.

There is no doubt the populist fervour whipped up by Trump and proclaimed via his social media accounts was often false and at times abhorrent. Likewise, there is no shortage of people – myself included – that have found Trump’s diatribe offensive and divisive.

But this does not mean it should be censored, especially when the punches are being pulled by big tech.

The banning of Trump by Twitter and Facebook is self-serving. It is, at best, misguided altruism, but is more likely feigned in the name of wokeness. It serves to build a false sense of trust and camaraderie with users, when ultimately all these platforms want is their data and dollars.

It is also virtue signalling of the highest order and of the worst kind. The type that has much more to do with the bottom line than the betterment of society.

The kind that is worth billions to big tech.

Importantly, for all people, this must be a wake-up call. Because any threat to free speech is a threat to democracy. And by muzzling Trump, these platforms have demonstrated the potential power they wield in ‘designing discourse’.

This power is far more immense than that of a government or media mogul – it represents a move away from social media to social engineering, algorithms over informed decision making.

There is no moral high ground.

This year, Facebook plans to launch end-to-end encryption across the platform, in a move that Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed, “prevents anyone – including us – from seeing what people share on our services”.

In this context ‘anyone’ means ‘everyone’, including law enforcement. Ultimately, Zuckerberg’s vision is to create an impenetrable dark web on the surface web, a place where paedophiles, terrorists and drug dealers can operate undetected.

It is a shirking of Facebook’s social responsibility with the aim of absolving the platform of liability for content moderation and will facilitate an online environment where both crime and disinformation can thrive.

Zuckerberg is not an elected official – he is a billionaire who wields his empire like a sword. 

In October 2020, the Five Eyes nations in conjunction with India and Japan released a joint statement calling for big tech to address “serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content”.  

While the statement acknowledges the vital role encryption plays in protecting human rights, personal information, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security, it highlights how encryption can be exploited for nefarious means.

The statement requested that big tech embed the safety of the public in system designs; enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued; and engage in consultation with governments and other stakeholders to facilitate legal access in a substantive way.

These requests are not exhaustive, nor are they an overreach. They are common sense.

And in a world that is increasingly dominated by big tech they draw a clear line in the sand, providing regulation in the wild west of cyber space and safety to citizens living in a digital world.