ACLU Highlights Surveillance State Intersecting with Surveillance Capitalism

| The Back Page

Spy in the dataSocial media as a tool of police or state surveillance is troubling, but it’s a complex issue, too. The ACLU highlighted a situation this week where the surveillance state was meeting surveillance capitalism, and it’s a topic worth discussing.

(This piece began on Thursday’s Daily Observations with me, Dave Hamilton, and Jeff Gamet if you’re looking for more.)

ACLU Report

The ACLU’s report focused on a company called Geofeedia that firm slurps up data from a variety of social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The Washington Post also noted Vine, Periscope, Russia’s VK, and China’s Weibo platforms.

One of the things Geofeedia does with that data is sell surveillance information to law enforcement, with some 500 law enforcement agencies as clients. The company sifts through large amounts of data from special feeds (that are also available to other developers). Geolocation data, tagging, check-ins, mentions, and other ordinary aspects of social media reality are then used to give law enforcement location data on…anyone. With or without due process.

The report found that Geofeedia was using special data streams from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help law enforcement agencies track protesters involved in the BlackLivesMatter movement. In my opinion, government and/or law enforcement tracking political or social protesters who haven’t been accused of a crime is a massive danger to our civil liberties, regardless of where those groups fall in the political spectrum.

Company Responses

To their credit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all curtailed Geofeedia’s access to these data streams. To their lack-of-credit, they didn’t do so until the ACLU began poking around in this issue. The civil right’s organization has called for social media platforms to be proactive in guarding against government surveillance use of their data. I hope U.S.-based companies heed that call.

Not All Law Enforcement Use of Social Media is Created Equal

My concern on this topic is the ever-increasing siren song of mass surveillance. I don’t have any ethical, moral, or political concerns about law enforcement pursuing specific criminal activity on social media with a warrant. If you’re a criminal and your numbnut-enough to check into the bank you’re robbing (or allow your smartphone to do it for you), the long arm of the law is going to snatch your butt and throw it in jail.

But I come from the classically liberal viewpoint that protesting is not a crime, and that our government—including local law enforcement—should not be tracking protesters. Your mileage may vary. It’s a free country, after all.

Foreign Surveillance

Another side to this polyhedral coin are foreign governments, many of whom routinely surveil their populations. Authoritarians are gonna authoritate, and despots are gonna despot, but I believe U.S. surveillance capitalists should protect their users from as much mass government surveillance as they can. They will if we make it important enough for them to do so.

Big Picture

Technology as a whole and social media in particular are building a new social order throughout the planet. Governments and law enforcement are wont to grab whatever they can to do their jobs better. The reality is we will always see examples of attempted overreach relating to social media because of this.

And to be clear on the subject, there will—and should—always be a tension there. Law enforcement should pursue new technologies and we, the people, should push back when they step too far.

As informed citizens, we must pay attention when organizations like the ACLU raise red flags. We must be involved. We must discuss it. We must let our elected representatives and the surveillance capitalists alike know that we aren’t OK with mass surveillance.

2 Comments Add a comment

  1. The thing that I believe is that most people who use these services like Facebook don’t realize the amount of information that the services are getting from them. I received a really sage piece of advice about the internet a long time ago, and it has stayed with me and its one of the things I think about when using online services “If you put something out there, you can’t get it back, and it probably will never go away.” Also as a parent these services scare me as my kids use some of them. They especially don’t know what they are giving away and how much potential harm could come from it. Also figuring out what data any service is collecting from you is an arduous task. It would make me happy if their were a standard rule that made the services tell me what they are collecting in simple and plain English rather than having to read through the terms and conditions where they try and bury the information in legalese. Example: “We are going to capture your location and sell it unless you do this”

  2. Everything Rick said x 100. The public is woefully undereducated about all of this. We need resources that actually spell out *why* this is a bad thing, as a great many people, particularly younger ones, will not take it into consideration otherwise.

    Transparency is also key, I think it’s high time many of these companies were regulated like their corporeal counterparts, if they continue to refuse to regulate themselves.

    I really applaud Apple for their approach to all of this, they literally stand alone.

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