Teona Tsintsadze

The global dangers of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

Authoritarian Tech is a weekly newsletter tracking how people in power are abusing technology and what it means for the rest of us. Also in this edition: human rights groups sue Uganda over its biometric ID scheme; and the global dangers lurking in a rules-free Twitter.

The internet was abuzz yesterday after news broke that Elon Musk’s $44 billion buyout of Twitter had gone through. Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” has made it clear that he believes Twitter overzealously moderates content and that he favors an approach with fewer takedowns, open algorithms, and “authentication of all humans.” In announcing the agreement, he said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” 

But what would a rules-free Twitter mean in places that are vulnerable to violence and social unrest? Last week, Coda’s Ellery Roberts Biddle took a sharp look at the dangers of Musk’s free speech absolutism in places where online hate speech regularly translates into real-world violence, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, and India. She spoke with Nikhil Pahwa, founder of the New Delhi-based tech publication Medianama, who rejected Musk’s ideas. Pahwa pointed at how extremist groups and political parties in India have weaponized the platform to incite violence against religious minorities, Muslims in particular.

“I think we’re in a situation where we need more moderation of hateful content and not less,” said Pahwa. “I don’t think Musk understands or cares for whether people are getting polarized or killed in India.”

Human rights groups are suing the Ugandan government over its controversial national digital ID system. The lawsuit, filed yesterday, claims the country’s digital ID scheme has excluded women and the elderly from accessing public health and government services. The government’s national identity card, known as the Ndaga Muntu, is mandatory for citizens to  open a bank account, get health care, vote, buy a mobile phone, travel within the country, and obtain other key social services. But the claimants say that millions are being denied these services because they don’t have the required digital ID cards. A June 2021 study of the country’s digital ID system by researchers at Unwanted Witness, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, and New York University found that it “has become an important source of exclusion for the poorest and most marginalized,” barring millions of people — up to an estimated third of the adult population — from accessing public services. Now Ugandan groups are suing the government over the alleged exclusion. Uganda’s scheme is one of a number of digital ID systems that are either active or under consideration in Africa. For more, check out our past newsletters on digital ID systems in Ghana and Kenya.

A deeper look at ICE and data brokers: A few weeks ago, we reported on efforts in Chicago to investigate whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) works with data brokers to get around “sanctuary city” policies that limit the types of information local law enforcement agencies can share with federal immigration authorities. New documents obtained by a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups show how in Colorado, ICE is using data brokers to bypass such policies. The report says that ICE contracted with the data broker Appriss Solutions, a subsidiary of LexisNexis, to access jail booking data through the LexisNexis Accurint Virtual Crime Center Platform. It describes how the software allows ICE agents to circumvent sanctuary city protections by sending “real-time alerts when people on its target lists are booked into county jails, allowing the agency to identify and apprehend them upon their release.” It’s unclear how widespread this practice is, or how many other jurisdictions have a similar system in place. But I’m keeping an eye on this issue, as well as the growing surveillance of immigrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Please stay tuned for more.  

SPEAKING OF DATA BROKERS: WHAT DOES THE RISE OF DATA MIDDLEMEN MEAN FOR YOUR DIGITAL SECURITY?

By Masho Lomashvili

Once we accept the often-unreadable terms and conditions of an app or online service, most of us think very little about what that product will do with our personal data. Yet as we move around the internet, companies collect all sorts of information about us — who we communicate with, where we go, even the amount of time we spend looking at an ad or social media post. 

Whether or not it is the “new oil,” data is one of the most valuable products of the 21st century. This is thanks in large part to data brokers — companies that compile personal data from across the digital landscape, and then analyze and sell pre-packaged datasets to all sorts of companies and public agencies. Leaders in the industry include Babel Street, Cuebiq, X-Mode, and Venntel — companies that most people have never heard of.

The data broker industry is expected to reach $345 billion in 2026. But we know so little about how the industry profits from our intimate information. To learn more about this powerful underworld of the digital economy, we spoke with two experts on data brokers this week: The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Beryl Lipton and Access Now’s Estelle Masse.

Data brokers gather all kinds of information about us from across the internet. What kind of picture can that information paint about a person?

“An incredibly detailed one,” said Lipton. ‘‘Consider the picture that your phone has of you: your exercise habits, where you check the weather, the places you go, what you shop, how long you linger over a particular image, people you communicate with.”

Taken together, these data points can “easily form an outline of an individual’s day-to-day and even minute-to-minute movements and actions,” she explained.

We know that private companies and governments across the world purchase aggregated data from data brokers. How do they use that data? 

Both experts spoke about data brokers’ customers, which range from marketing firms, to “people search” sites, to financial institutions, to government agencies.

“The information these data brokers pass along about us may influence whether or not you get a mortgage or at what rate, whether your insurance premium goes up, whether you are getting a loan or access to a school and more,” said Masse.

Lipton noted that U.S. immigration agencies like ICE have used this information to surveil and apprehend undocumented immigrants. She also recalled cases when data from services like Grindr was used to expose intimate details of people’s sex lives, like that of a now-former top official of the U.S. Catholic church, and several LGBTQ people in Egypt and Tunisia who then faced criminal charges relating to homosexuality.

Data brokers often promise that they “anonymize” our information, suggesting that they are protecting our privacy and thus making it safe to use and sell. Should we believe them?

“Truly ‘anonymized’ data is not possible,” Lipton said. “It only takes ill intentions to make this sensitive information dangerous.” Masse agreed. “People can usually be re-identified in a few steps,” she said.

Masse pointed out that even when companies use these so-called anonymization techniques,  there are many privacy violations that occur leading up to this point.

“How did the data broker get information about you in the first place? What gives the data broker the right to analyze and draw conclusions about you on the basis of this data? What gives data brokers the right to sell information about you, even if your name is hidden, to other companies?” she asked.

While there are some technologies that help reduce this kind of data collection — like the tracking settings on your browser — it is almost impossible to use most digital services without giving up some of your data.

The relative lack of regulation of these practices worldwide doesn’t help. Masse explained that in the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation gives people the right to contact data brokers to know what information they hold, and the right to ask companies to delete their personal data. Although more countries are adopting laws that can help rein in data brokers’ practices, most people worldwide still have little if any legal protection against this kind of abuse. Speaking from the U.S., Lipton said it’s “high time” for the country to pass “federal legislation to protect people’s personal data and rein in the practices of many industries that exploit our information, including data brokers.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • This deep dive by Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker into the Israeli firm NSO group, which builds the notorious spyware technology Pegasus. If you’re unfamiliar with the global commercial spyware industry, which is largely unregulated and worth an estimated 12 billion dollars, Farrow’s comprehensive longread is a good starting point. But NSO isn’t the only company in the spyware game. For more, don’t miss this article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz exploring the mysterious case of a Greek investigative reporter whose phone was infected with spyware created by the Israeli firm Cytrox.
  • This thought-provoking series in MIT Technology Review about the ways in which artificial intelligence is ushering in a “new colonial world order.” “The AI industry does not seek to capture land as the conquistadors of the Caribbean and Latin America did, but the same desire for profit drives it to expand its reach,” writes Karen Hao. The series brings readers to Venezuela, Indonesia, South Africa, and New Zealand, examining the throughlines between colonialism and the development of artificial intelligence.

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