Facebook’s ex-security chief is starting an institute to tackle tech’s biggest threatsOctober 16, 2018
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s ex-chief security officer, thinks his former home at the heart of Silicon Valley is ill equipped to address the world’s most pressing digital problems, namely security, user privacy, and the protection of democratic institutions. To address this, and perhaps help ease the tensions between Washington and the tech industry while pulling in more academic and research experts, Stamos is launching a new institute he’s calling the Stanford Internet Observatory.
The former exec, who left Facebook for the world of academia in August and has earned a reputation for being outspoken and frank about the issues facing the industry, plans to formally announce the institute later today with a speech at Stanford. News of Stamos’ plans was first reported earlier today by The Washington Post.
“There aren’t processes to thoughtfully think through these trade-offs,” Stamos told The Post in an interview ahead of his planned speech, which is set to take place later today at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “You end up with these for-profit, very powerful organizations that are not democratically accountable, making decisions that are in their best and often short-term interest … without there being a much more open and democratic discussion of what these issues are.”
Stamos hopes his new institute — which appears to be equal parts think tank, academia research center, and cybersecurity investigator — will bridge gaps between various academic factions, Silicon Valley’s ruling class, and Washington. The goal is that members of all three groups come together to better hold one another accountable and make meaningful progress on big-picture issues. Stamos says the SIO will aid technology companies in cybersecurity investigations and try to promote more sharing of data and a higher level of transparency, to better protect against future threats.
Stamos told The Post that he’s particularly concerned about the US midterm elections, set to take place next month, and a tactic he now calls “hack and leak,” which involves stealing sensitive documents or confidential information and releasing it to sow division and undermine the entire electoral process. He points to Russia’s release of the Democratic National Committee’s emails, and later Hillary Clinton’s campaign communications, as the start of a new era of foreign influence operations that rely on the vulnerabilities inherent in how individuals use technology like email accounts and social networks.
Stamos admitted his former employer has made great strides in pushing back against these threats — through better detection of fake news, the sussing out of bot accounts and other suspicious behavior, and more tight regulation of political ad spending. But he regrets Facebook’s handling of the 2016 US elections. “I wish we had had a propaganda-focused intel team back then, instead of just focusing on traditional cybersecurity,” he said.
Going forward, Stamos hopes the SIO can act as a check on Silicon Valley’s decision-making while also providing a bridge between the industry and the academic and political communities that also have a stake in the country’s ability to defend, detect, and protect against cyberthreats. “We need way more transparency from the companies,” Stamos said. “None of us would be okay with a legal system where the decisions are made in black boxes and there’s no rights of appeal and there’s no understanding of why decisions were made.”