The reporting is a bit garbled, but it sounds like Facebook means these people should maintain their clearances while they’re working for Facebook, and receive information from national intelligence sources as a routine part of their job description.
This development, of course, is in response to the much-hyped story that Russian trolls bought ads on Facebook in 2016, seeking to do something terrible to the U.S. election. The evidence of that keeps disappearing on us, but in spite of being unable to spot it in advance, Facebook is very, very sure it didn’t merely happen, but meant something of extraordinary, if still unparsable, significance.
Let’s take a moment, meanwhile, to parse what Facebook’s proposal would mean for social media operations in the United States.
Bloomberg offers this summary of how the policy would translate into practical action from the employee’s point of view:
Workers with such clearance can access information classified by the U.S. government. Facebook plans to use these people — and their ability to receive government information about potential threats — to search more proactively for questionable social media campaigns ahead of elections, according to the person, who asked not to be identified because the information is sensitive. A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.
Job candidates like this are often former government and intelligence officials or contractors. The status can carry over to private-sector jobs, as long as the position still requires access to sensitive information. Previously granted clearances become inactive when intelligence workers leave government employment, but they can be reactivated on Facebook’s behalf, the person said.
Pretty straightforward, and essentially correct. But this summary leaves out the most important part, which is that all national security clearances are justified based on a government program — not a private-industry program.
In other words: Facebook would pay the costs of keeping people “in status” (e.g., background checks), as many government contractors do. But the clearances can’t exist at all unless there is a government program that makes them necessary.
Clearances go not with employees but with programmatic requirements. Clearance “billets” always exist, once the need for them has been established, and employees come and go from them. Some of the employees are in private industry; the Defense Department, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, and Energy, among others, have oversight of a lot of these private-industry billets.
So Facebook is proposing to operate the way a government contractor does, administering clearance billets that are programmatically owned by a department of the U.S. Government.
What department would that be? With which government agency would Facebook be joined at the hip, to take administrative responsibility for national security clearances, and translate that into receiving national intelligence?
The Department of Homeland Security? That would have to be my first guess. So we can imagine Facebook sitting down with DHS and hammering out how this would work.
Would the intelligence updates come through DHS? Would they come directly from CIA? Would Facebook employees have access to highly classified signals intelligence; i.e., the information made available from NSA?
Would Facebook employees with the requisite clearances have their own user accounts on the national intelligence ICITE network — the one that gives access to the vast NSA database of communications data collected on Americans?
It would actually be remarkable if they didn’t, since the purpose of this whole exercise is to be “spotting trolls.” The NSA database contains exactly the kind of information that would help an employee do that. (The real purpose of collecting the data is to track foreign threat actors, like Russians assuming false identities online. Collecting on U.S. persons is incidental.)
Interacting directly with that database would be the efficient way to stay ahead of troll accounts. Waiting around for someone at NSA — or worse, CIA — to send you a polished product based on the same research, a week later: not so much.
It isn’t possible to contemplate this move by Facebook and not go there. Giving Facebook employees primary access to national intelligence information on the world’s communication data, including Americans’, can be the only rational end-purpose for this idea.
We’d be deep in Big Brother, Stalin-could-only-wish territory with this one. Facebook is in a league of its own as a social media platform; it already watches you like a hawk, and has you pegged and categorized six ways to Sunday within nano-level tolerances; and now it wants (or somebody wants it) to be on an umbilical cord to the highly networked U.S. intelligence community, Samantha Power’s and Susan Rice’s handmaiden in unmasking Friends of Trump in 2015 and 2016.
What could go wrong?