For some time now, social media outlets like Facebook have been a focal point of concern for commentators predicting the death of privacy. Back in 2010, for example, the European Union pushed a directive that promised to limit some of the ways that Facebook could handle private data. That move that led at least one expert to speculate that the social media site would eventually need its own foreign policy.
One way to look at that suggestion is to see a Facebook foreign policy as a symbol, the origins of the Internet showing through the skin of current events. Foreign policy was a motive force in the development of the internet. Much like the hipbone of a whale, to see an online entity develop its own foreign policy would be like discovering a vestige of its evolution embedded in its modern form.
In the 1990s, the CIA found that increases in the amount of data to be parsed were outpacing the government’s ability to compass it all. The Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, made a priority of finding a way to bridge that gap. The result, chartered in 1999, was In-Q-Tel, a privately chartered venture capital fund tasked with funding research that would not merely modernize information technologies strategy, but also to push at its boundaries.
In-Q-Tel, according to a recent report by NPR’s All Tech Considered, was partly responsible for technologies that have since become part of the fabric of daily life – think Google Earth and touchscreen digital devices. The fund functions by investing in tech start-ups – particularly innovators in the realm of photography and internet start-ups, since the Web was a growing source of actionable intel.
The way that the CIA went about sponsoring those advances – a government-funded venture capital fund – was innovative, but the role of government in bringing these culture-shifting technologies to the public was nothing particularly new. The ARPA in ARPANET, for example, stood for Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense. The packet switching network first used by ARPANET became the basis for modern data communications networks like the internet.
Generally speaking, In-Q-Tel doesn’t invest directly in closed networks, and there’s no hard evidence that it’s had a hand in the development of Facebook. That said, recent In-Q-Tel investments do incorporate social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Geolocation and big data are growing points of interest for the fund, particular companies that can collate the wealth of information churning through the Web and convert that data into viable predictions. In that regard, In-Q-Tel is taking its cues from the growth of Little Brother.
The press has been reporting on In-Q-Tel for years now, so it’s not exactly news that taxpayer money is going to tech start-ups by way of the CIA. The point I want to make, rather, is that the nature of government investment goes a long way toward explaining the can of worms we’ve opened when it comes to internet privacy. That explanation need not be any more conspiratorial nor sinister than simple economics – with the CIA pumping millions of dollars into tech start-ups each year, it’s only natural that the growth of innovation would tend to converge with defense and intelligence goals. It would not fall wide of the mark to say that the technologies that define the internet era were all built on research coming out of the defense and intelligence communities.
Observed in that light, it should hardly be any surprise that those technologies have so consistently raised privacy concerns. They were, after all, built with those concerns in mind.