Not these guys again. I know! I know! I promise this post is not about 2017 elections or the role of Cambridge Analytica in campaigns. I wanted to focus on something else that didn’t quite make mainstream media.
Facebook banned a company called Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica for sharing and harvesting user’s data improperly. I am focusing on this issue today on my blog post today because SCL was hired by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) to provide research and analytical support to counter terrorist propaganda overseas (radicalization). Here is an amazing chart that simplifies the radicalization process.
According to the dictionary, radicalization is the action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political, religious, or social issues. So in short, (DOS) hired SCL to use social media to study, identify, and counter radicalization propaganda.
Why is that important? Terrorists are using social media for recruitment. The U.S. in the past relied on “policing” and as such, there has been a need for more proactive approaches to counter-terrorism. Contracts like these awarded to awarded to SCL have been crucial to counter-terrorism measures but in this case, it raised some questions.
- Should irreparable harm to national security be an exception to termination of a contract by a federal government agency when a civilian contractor breaches on of its terms?
The general rule is that the owner of the contract owns all the product and data that arises from the contract. In this case, the U.S. Department of State owns all the data from the project and research that SCL was working on as it relates to radicalization. If SCL disseminated Facebook data to its subsidiary Cambridge Analytica, it all depends on how the contract was drafted. If the contract was explicit in its language that SCL was not to disseminate or share the data with anyone, then SCL is in breach of their contractual duty. However, since their role in social media countering propaganda and researching trends is crucial against countering terrorism, one could argue that as an exception, until a suitable adequate replacement is found, an irreparable harm exception should be applied to allow SCL to continue with its work though under strict supervision and an amended contract. Case in point, we learned from the 2016 Nice Bastille Day killings that terrorists no longer need explosives as they used a truck on this attack. In addition, “Lahouaiej-Bouhlel is believed to have self-radicalized over the Internet directly before the Nice attack.” This is why it is important to keep proactive counter-terrorism programs like those active even if the vendor may have breached one of its contractual obligations until such a time an adequate replacement can be found in the interest of national security.
- Since Facebook banned SCL, is there anything that DOS can do get then reinstated so that the project can continue until they find a comparable replacement?
Facebook is a private organization and the United States is a democracy meaning that the Federal government cannot compel a private organization to act absent jurisdiction e.g. The FAA can compel United Airlines to act in a certain way (regulations) but the FAA has no jurisdiction over Facebook. (I thought this meme was funny—back to Facebook)
DOS is in the business of diplomacy so they could try the nice approach of advancing Facebook’s business interests in countries where there might be some resistance or more strict privacy laws etc. On the other hand, DOS could make friends with other agencies like the NSA or FBI that could get into the FISA court (we shall talk about this later) and get a court order to compel Facebook to reinstate SCL due to national security. I would only recommend the later approach if the U.S. was certain of an imminent attack. Otherwise, I would recommend the more diplomatic approach because community engagement is an extremely important tool in fighting terrorism both from private citizens and organizations.
In conclusion, if SCL is found to have breached its contract with DOS, due to the nature of the work and irreparable harm that could be caused by the gap while trying to find an adequate replacement, DOS should allow SCL to continue under close supervision and an amended contract until new contractor is up to speed.