About a month ago, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were summoned before Congress to testify about how foreign actors used social-media platforms to sow discord during the 2016 election. While most of the animosity was focused squarely on Facebook (understandable), there was one point when a senator zeroed in on Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett. That senator was Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton.
This morning, it was reported that as part of a larger personnel shake-up, Cotton would likely be nominated as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is one of Congress’s most hawkish members and an important Trump ally.
Cotton had a bone pick with Twitter over its relationship with Dataminr, a social-media-analysis company that helped the CIA perform surveillance work until that relationship became public in 2016. Worried about the optics, Twitter cut off intelligence agencies from harvesting data from its network. Asked about this decision by Cotton, Edgett said that not offering API access to intelligence firms was a global policy, not one specific to the U.S.
Cotton played up his befuddlement. “Do you see an equivalency between the Central Intelligence Agency and Russian intelligence services?” he asked. “So you will apply the same policy to our intelligence community that you’ll apply to an adversary’s intelligence services?”
He then turned to the subject of WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange, both of which have active accounts on Twitter. When Edgett explained that they were allowed to be on Twitter because the service does not want to appear biased with regards to policy enforcement, Cotton asked, rhetorically, “Is it biased to side with America over our adversaries?” (I mean, that’s like the definition of “bias,” but you know what he means.)
He concluded his interrogation with a statement with a message as clear as can be: “Most American citizens would expect American companies to be willing to put the interests of our country above — not on par with — our adversaries.” For Cotton, likely the next director of the CIA, the worldwide but American-based tech companies that are in the business of Hoovering up as much data on users as possible — and then storing that data indefinitely and cataloguing it and analyzing it — are either for the United States or against it. There can be no in-between.
He ended on this thought: “This kind of attitude, I would submit, is not acceptable to the large majority of Americans, and it’s going to be part of what would lead to unwise or imprudent regulation, not sensible and smart regulation.” Again, the message is unambiguous — tech companies need to willingly cooperate with the American intelligence community and its allies, or face punishment by regulation. What this means for your data isn’t yet clear, but it probably isn’t good.