This week, we learned how shockingly lax Facebook appears to have been around how much of its data leaks into the servers of other companies, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and Spotify, according to a report by The New York Times. Once that data is 'in the wild,' neither Facebook, nor perhaps anyone else can be certain what companies, or perhaps which governments, can acquire and use it. A bit like the petroleum that drove earlier international conflicts, the oceans of data you help create by using Facebook and other digital platforms are likely soon to become terrain for geopolitical competition — a competition the United States is not well poised to win.
Until now, public attention has focused on how undemocratic actors use various social media platforms to undermine democracy or security. Violent Islamist and "alt-right" groups have successfully leveraged such platforms to recruit and propagandize. Through Facebook's cascading scandals, we've also learned that Russia's Internet Research Agency used fake Facebook accounts — not to mention Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+ — as vehicles to disseminate destabilizing misinformation in some cases both before and after the 2016 presidential election.
There is a difference, however, between the use of a communication platform by an entity hostile to democracy under the rule of law, and the latter's acquisition and exploitation of the data produced by that platform. To date, Russia's Internet Research Agency, ISIS and domestic neo-Nazi groups have been users of platforms. So far as we know, either all or almost all of these actors have not acquired data. What if they had?
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