We need reliable bot detectors.
The irresistible subject is Facebook, about which you’ve probably read more than enough to make your eyes glaze. Nonetheless, bear with me, because, as pointed out in this space not long ago, the central problem isn’t data privacy or policy enforcement failures.
No, bots, not Facebook’s data usage policies and violations thereof, are the central problem here. The reason it’s the central problem is that bots scale. Human beings don’t.
And just as Twitter’s failure to implement and deploy bot detectors directly led to zillions of bot-amplified tweet-storms during the 2016 election, so bots are the reason 50 million Facebook subscribers were caught up in the latest fiasco.
Bots and their detection and prevention are the big under-reported issue here, because until it’s addressed, even the most ingenious terms-of-use policies will have all the impact of an eye dropper in a forest fire.
Even if you don’t use Facebook, you and the business you support might nonetheless be on the front lines of the war against the bot apocalypse.
Bots scale. Humans don’t. That’s at the core of Facebook’s data breach. That’s because the initial breach wasn’t a breach at all. A researcher paid a group of Facebook users to take a personality test and to share personal information … a perfectly legal transaction.
Then came the bots, in the form of a crawler that, starting with this list of identified Facebook users, navigated their networks so as to harvest information from 50 million users who hadn’t given their permissions.
This is the nature of social networks: They are networks, which means that from any node you can navigate to any other node.
If the aforementioned researcher were to personally try to harvest data from 50 million connected Facebook subscribers, my back-of-the-envelope calculations say Facebook would have ceased to exist centuries before he finished the job.
But add bots to the mix and you get a very different result. They can crawl the nodes of a network orders of magnitude more quickly than a human can. That’s how they’re able to harvest personal information from millions after only receiving permission from a relative handful. Facebook purportedly disabled the ability to harvest friend data from its API in 2015. All this means is that instead of invoking the API, bots have to screen-scrape instead, which in turn means the bot is impersonating a human being.
Add this: Like it or not, we’re rapidly mastering the discipline predicted in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. He called it “psychohistory,” and its practitioners knew so much about human psychology that they could manipulate people to do just about anything. Asimov optimistically made psychohistorians a secret, benevolent group. Unsurprisingly, our actual psychohistorians are using their techniques to create robotic human impersonators that manipulate actual humans more for power and profit than the greater good.
Why would we expect anything else?
If you’re wearing your business/IT priority-setter hat right now, my best advice is, sadly enough, don’t unilaterally disarm. Your competitors are, or soon will take advantage of these techniques and technologies to sell more products and services. From this perspective you’re in an arms race. If you aren’t actively monitoring developments in these area and working with the business strategy team to see how you can profit from them, it won’t be long before you’re replaced by someone who understands these matters.
But if you’re wearing your human-who-doesn’t-want-the-bot-apocalypse hat, you might why Facebook, which is investing heavily in artificial intelligence research and development, doesn’t devote more of its R&D budget to bot detection … like, for example, any of it?
My guess: Facebook is investing heavily in human impersonation. It’s in the bot business … chatbot technology, for example … so why would it also develop bot detection technology?
Especially when its customers … businesses … see direct financial benefits from being able to deploy convincing chatbots and other human impersonations and no obvious profit from detecting such things.
Because make no mistake about it, you might be a Facebook user, but you aren’t a Facebook customer. Facebook follows the standard media business model. As pointed out in this space back in 2002 in the context of newpapers and television, when it comes to most media, you aren’t the customer. You’re the product. And in the world of business, it’s the customer who’s always right.
Products like us enjoy no such privileges.