"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Big Brother Is Watching Facebook

I have written before about government invasion of personal privacy.  Perhaps naively, I assumed that routine tracking of social media by government would not be allowed.  I knew and was concerned about the routine sale of personal information shared on social media to private companies; but the news that whatever I wrote on Facebook could, would, and has been monitored by the US Government was shocking, for it represented another serious government invasion of privacy. 

The issue which caught media attention today was the newly-discovered fact that Homeland Security contracted a private company to scrutinize social networking sites to determine what local citizens thought of government and specific government agencies.  The logical worry, of course, would be that government would take some kind of recriminatory action against those citizens:  Here is an excerpt from the NY TIMES article of today (1.14.12):

The Department of Homeland Security paid a contractor in 2009 to monitor social networking sites — like Facebook, blogs and reader comments on a news article — to see how the residents of Standish, Mich., were reacting to a proposal to move detainees from Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba, to a local prison there, according to newly disclosed documents. While it has long been known that the department monitors the Internet for information about emerging threats to public safety like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, the documents show that its Social Networking/Media Capability program, at least in an early stage, was also focused on “public reaction to major governmental proposals with homeland security implications…


Of course, the Department of Homeland Security stated that no data collected from social networking sites will be personally attributable - they only want to know that there is a threat emerging, not who is contributing to the threat – but who can possibly believe that?  The business of Homeland Security is to identify people who might against the interests of the United States.  Terrorism has a very human face. The government insisted, unbelievably, that:

While the names of blog and mainstream news sources are logged in the sample reports, the documents show that such reports — whatever their topic — are not to include personally identifying information; for example, a quotation taken from Twitter would say it came from “a Twitter user” rather than citing a specific Twitter account.

In a Washington POST article today (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/dhs-monitoring-of-social-media-worries-civil-liberties-advocates/2012/01/13/gIQANPO7wP_story.html) covering the same story, the reported stated:

A year ago, the department released a report describing privacy guidelines on its social media monitoring program. For instance, information that can identify an individual may be collected if it “lends credibility” to the report. Officials said that would generally be provided to operational officials responding to an emergency.

Of course government collects information on individuals.

It is bad enough that corporations mine the Internet for social trends in order to develop  products and product design; and even worse for them to collect information by zip code or other identifying features so that they can ‘narrowcast’ their advertising; but it is another thing altogether for the government, with considerable police powers, to monitor free speech.  It is not a great leap to imagine Homeland Security seeing your blogs on radical Islam (even though you may be only debating the role of Islam in secular life), learning, via GPS and cell phone monitoring (see my previous blog post on Invasion of Privacy), that you have been often in the vicinity of a radical mosque (although you have only been buying delicious baklava nearby), and seeing that you have been consulting radical websites on the Internet, to get the FBI to pay you a visit.

The police already use urban surveillance cameras with highly sensitive face-recognition software and internet monitoring software (such as that used by the private contractor identified in the news stories cited in the POST and TIMES articles) to try to match supposed criminals with their Facebook sites.  Once again, the chance for government abuse is significant.

What raised civil libertarian hackles even more than usual was the fact that Homeland Security contracted the surveillance to monitor dissent not unlike Stasi or Securitate in the former Eastern bloc.  ‘It could never happen here’ was happening. 

As I have mentioned before, we are all willing dupes in this continuing invasion of privacy because we are quite happy that Amazon.com or L.L.Bean, based on monitoring our commercial online activity offer us exactly the books and clothes that we have always wanted.  We are happy that CDC (Centers of Disease Control of the US Government) tracks medical websites to see where hits are coming from.  They say, with data to back them, that such geographical tracking of flu site searches, is a better predictor of disease outbreaks than many other kinds of epidemiological monitoring.  A good thing, right?  Yes in the short run, but not in the long.  Such links can be eventually prejudicial.  If a particular geographical area is categorized, on the basis of Internet activity, as very concerned about a particular type of cancer, blood disease, or severe infection, it might well raise a red flag to insurance companies who are always looking for good ways to raise rates, and they might raise the premiums on anyone living there.

The monitoring of social networking sites is a tricky legal business just because they are social, or public. When you post something on Facebook, you automatically give up most rights to privacy.  Facebook, realizing customer concern, is allowing you to customize your site and restricting access.  However, this in no way guarantees that government will not monitor the text you post, regardless of its intended circulation.  The software is invasive enough to read what you write, even if you don’t want your ex to read it.

As it stands now, if Facebook were to say to Homeland Security that they refused any agency of the government to monitor their users’ sites, they would get nowhere.  National security is at stake here, would be the reply, and besides, it is a public site.  Private telecommunication companies have routinely capitulated to government agencies to turn over private customer phone and data information.

Big Brother is indeed watching, and it is a cause of great concern.

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