Is Facebook a Snitch?

The cops are watching your social media accounts, which are windows into your activity.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but sharing personal information about yourself on the internet isn't a good method to keep secrets. Government operatives are among those scouring the web for information, finding social media to be a simple and low-cost way of acquiring intelligence, frequently with the platforms' and their targets' agreement. Due to the ease with which information may be obtained, cops and their private-sector contractors snoop on us not just to investigate crimes, but also to look for anything of interest. Worse, rather than limiting such abuses, many politicians wish to increase them.

"Social media has become a significant source of information for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies," the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law noted in a report released last week. "The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department are among the many federal agencies that routinely monitor social platforms, for purposes ranging from conducting investigations to identifying threats to screening travelers and immigrants."

The issue of government surveillance of social media is not a new one. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the government in 2019 to demand the disclosure of social media surveillance capabilities. U.S. District Judge Edward Chen eventually ordered Customs and Border Protection to publish their surveillance regulations in September of last year. However, we quickly discovered that the agency frequently runs the identities of persons of interest, like as journalists and activists, through databases and compares them to data collected from social media by commercial corporations.

In fact, private contractors play a significant role in social media surveillance. For years, the FBI used Dataminr, "a third-party service that can alert agents and analysts to important social media posts about breaking news, as well as when, where and how often key words and phrases appear in online posts," according to the Washington Post.

In 2019, the FBI shifted to ZeroFox, which provides a comparable service. Some FBI agents blamed the shift for their failure to predict the Capitol riot on January 6, claiming that it caused them to overlook posts and key-word searches that may have acted as warning signs of impending events. Even government authorities recognize the difficulties in distinguishing genuine intent to perform unlawful activities from jokes, memes, and irate rants, so that's a stretch.

"[A]ctual intent to carry out violence can be difficult to discern from the angry, hyperbolic—and constitutionally protected—speech and information commonly found on social media and other online platforms," Melissa Smislova, former head of Intelligence and Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last March.

That challenge is emphasized by the Brennan Center, which points out that "[s]ocial media conversations are difficult to interpret because they are often highly context-specific and can be riddled with slang, jokes, memes, sarcasm, and references to popular culture; heated rhetoric is also common."

When law enforcement officers are under pressure to find someone to hang a crime on or are predisposed towards a target, heated speech, in particular, is simple to misread. The Brennan Center focuses on the dangers of social media mining "for the Black, Latino, and Muslim communities that have historically been targeted by law enforcement and intelligence efforts," and there's no doubt that agents motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious animus can have a field day spinning off-the-cuff posts and tweets. However, the split structure of modern America makes it clear that political prejudice is a risk when police enforcement searches for participants in erroneous protests or seeks damaging information on opponents of whichever group is in power at the time.

Often, agents don't have to do much more than ask firms for data about their customers. When the FBI looked into the activities of suspected rioters on January 6, telecoms contributed cellphone locations, Facebook offered pictures taken within the Capitol, and Google provided exact position data, according to Vox's Recode.

"Rather than revealing the breadth of the FBI's domestic surveillance capabilities, the majority of cases show the power of the tech industry to collect and collate vast amounts of data on its users—and their obligation to share that data with law enforcement when asked," Vox's Sara Morrison wrote.

Because of its inability to predict the January 6 unrest, law enforcement has been under pressure over the last year to conduct even more social media surveillance.

"You know, I think that, in part, is an intelligence failure that is the failure to see all the evidence that was out there to be seen of the propensity for violence that day, a lot of it on social media," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) commented last week. "Now there are answers for why the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security failed to see it as clearly as they should have and we're looking into that."

Many opponents of purported law enforcement intelligence failures admit that the FBI and its sister agencies have a long history of surveilling nonviolent political radicals, minorities, and anti-war activists. They'd better, because the wrongdoings are well-documented.

"[T]he FBI … has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups," as the U.S. Senate's Church Committee noted in 1976.

However, their message appears to be that, because the government has inadvertently put some groups under surveillance in the past, it should broaden its monitoring operations in the future. Rather than limiting oppressive monitoring, they want to make sure that previously marginalized groups receive a taste of it. That may be more equitable in some weird sense of the word, but it's also extremely hazardous.

"Government monitoring of social media can work to people's detriment in at least four ways," cautions the Brennan Center report. "(1) wrongly implicating an individual or group in criminal behavior based on their activity on social media; (2) misinterpreting the meaning of social media activity, sometimes with severe consequences; (3) suppressing people's willingness to talk or connect openly online; and (4) invading individuals' privacy."

However, their message appears to be that, because the government has accidentally placed some organizations under surveillance in the past, future monitoring efforts should be expanded. Instead of restricting oppressive surveillance, they want to give previously oppressed populations a taste of it. That may be more equitable in some strange sense, but it's also very dangerous.

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