Social 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.