What could possibly go wrong with a partnership between Facebook and the Russian search engine Yandex?
A whole lot when viewed through the counterintelligence optic.
Who is Yandex?
Yandex is Russia’s largest search engine. Think Google for the Russian population. Like other search engine providers, they make their money by providing advertising. Now Facebook wants user data from Yandex.
The relationship gives Facebook access to Russian data, including services like hotel and airline searches. Yandex can capitalize on Facebook’s merchant capability and hyper-local advertising capabilities.
All of which appears to be within the norm of commercial engagement – until one takes a counterintelligence optic to the equation and then red flags begin to rise in rapid succession.
Counterintelligence threat – travel patterns
With access to travel information, hotel reservations or airline ticket information, the ability to chart, compile and disseminate travel patterns to third parties will be possible. It is, afterall, how Yandex and others hope to make their money. In Russia, it is probable that one of those third parties will be the internal security service, the FSB, whose remit includes producing assessment portfolios on those who may have access to information of national security interest.
Counterintelligence threat – hyperlocal information collecting
No need to invest in advance beacons and the like when Facebook can do the trick for you. While hyperlocal advertising is clearly in every retailer’s interest, where a given individual is physically located is of equal interest to the FSB. With this information, chance encounters are no longer a matter of chance. They know where you are, and can reach out and engage with you as you move about.
Counterintelligence threat – Facebook data and Yandex search engine
Advertisers scream for access to information which allows them to segment the market by marital status, travel destinations, hotel preferences, hobbies, relationships, associates and friends, and the like, which are all normal fare from within the Facebook stream. This same information is gold to every hostile intelligence service in putting together the aforementioned targeting folios. And let there be no doubt, the Russian FSB and SVR (external intelligence service) know what to do with this level of granular information.
Is Facebook alone in partnering with Yandex?
No, Microsoft and Yandex entered an agreement where Yandex will be the default homepage and search engine on Windows 10 devices in Russia.
Russia and U.S. companies will find ways to collaborate, and while one may expect the information to be used in one manner, there will always be an ancillary bi-product of the engagement which may present a counterintelligence threat, especially to the cleared traveler or user of the identified services.