Pando

Worried about Facebook's coziness with Trump? Watch what Alex Stamos does next

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on January 10, 2017

From The Security Desk

Interesting piece on Re/Code this morning about the “secret meeting” of Valley engineers who fear that Trump is very, very bad for tech.

They’re right of course, and they’re also right when they talk about the potential for an engineers’ strike to grind major tech companies to a halt.

And yet, Re/Code still managed to bury the lede by breezing past a mention of one significant attendee…

The rules say all attendees are granted anonymity unless willing to be outed, which made Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos’s appearance all the more significant. He declined to comment, but did give Recode permission to print his name.

And that’s all the piece had to say about Alex Stamos. Which is a shame because simply describing Stamos as Facebook’s CSO doesn’t do him - or his appearance at the meeting - justice. In fact, taken at face value it almost suggests that Facebook had send such a high ranking exec to a “secret meeting” of rank and file techies to keep tabs on potentially troublesome workers.

The truth is something far more interesting, and far more encouraging.

It’s certainly true to say that Stamos is a high ranking Facebook exec, but he’s also something else: The canary in the coal mine. Anyone worried about Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s willingness to cosy up to Trump (and in Zuck’s case, his increasingly weird willingess to cosy up to ultra-nationalist demagogues and authoritarian regimes generally) should keep a very close eye on what Stamos does next.

For one thing, it’s hard to find a bio of Stamos that doesn’t include the phrase “vocal NSA critic.” Back in 2014, when Stamos joined Yahoo as its CSO, Entrepreneur magazine described him thus:

Stamos is known for his condemnatory stance on the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program.

Just last month, on Feb. 27, the University of California, Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science program graduate delivered the opening and closing remarks at TrustyCon, a security “counter-conference” held in San Francisco specifically to protest the RSA Conference, and the security firm’s now not-so-secret $10 million contract with the NSA.

Stamos, a key TrustyCon organizer, joined a group of fellow high-level security industry leaders in boycotting the RSA’s event from directly across the street from the venue.

The article, which cited Stamos's appearance at conferences like DEFCON and Black Hat, also linked to this post on Stamos’ own blog about the dangers and possibilities of PRISM.

A year later, now at Yahoo, Stamos “clashed” with the director of the NSA over the agency’s demands for backdoors to access encrypted user data. Per the BBC

A Yahoo executive has publicly challenged the National Security Agency (NSA) over encryption "backdoors".

Alex Stamos pressed NSA director Adm Mike Rogers on whether the access to encrypted data requested by the US authorities should also be granted to the Russian and Chinese governments.

A few months later, it was reported that Stamos had been “poached” by Facebook. In fact, as Reuters revealed in 2016, Stamos resigned from Yahoo after discovering that his employer had agreed to pass data to the American government.

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer's decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc.

Which brings us to this week’s “secret meeting” and Stamos’ willingness to be mentioned by name as an attendee.

Everything happening at Facebook right now suggests a company that wants to make Donald Trump and his supporters on the right happy. Facebook’s policy team is already chock full of right-wingers, and the company is still hiring. When not perched behind bottles of Trump water at Trump Tower, senior executives have met with prominent conservative publishers, journalists and politicians to reassure them that the company won’t “censor” conservative news sources, including those peddling fake news. The company’s efforts to weed out fake news have been lackluster at best. And let’s not forget that Peter Thiel (also a Pando investor, for the love of God) remains a Facebook board member despite his hugely conflicting role on Donald Trump’s transition team.  

Facebook would deny any cosiness, of course, and you can bet ya bottom dollar the company will soon announce a bunch of product and policy sops designed to appeal to left wingers.

And yet, nobody in their right mind believes that the Trump administration, leaning on the mutual Thiel connection, won’t try to get Facebook to do its bidding. The “best” case scenario is a demand that pro-Trump news be given more prominence and anti-Trump critics be shushed. More likely, and more terrifying, is an increase in demands for data on those same critics, and a broader policy of forcing tech companies to share more information with the NSA and similar agencies. We saw that start under Obama and Trump has already talked about building a Muslim database and asking tech leaders to “shut down” parts of the Internet which he doesn’t like.

The question is whether Facebook continues to try to keep Trump happy when those requests start rolling in (see also: requests to hire fewer immigrants or, even worse, to share information on those immigrants currently employed.)

In that regard, at least based on past performance, Alex Stamos is someone to whom we should all be paying attention. And in that context the timing of his very public attendance at an anti-Trump meeting looks a lot like a shot across the bows of his own employer.

Should Stamos suddenly get “poached” by another company or decide to leave Facebook for some other unspecified reason, the rest of us should probably take that as a cue to get our data as far away from Mark Zuckerberg’s servers as possible.