If the Federal government were able to develop a way to make individuals voluntarily opt in to a program that would collect vast amounts of public and private personal information, would you join?
It’s likely that you already have.
The social networking site Facebook has 900 million registered accounts throughout the world. These accounts include profiles for businesses, government organizations and individuals, who are perpetually posting details about their location and lifestyle. The social networking site feels to most people like an innocent way to keep in touch with family, friends and past acquaintances; but beneath its innocent veneer, a privacy nightmare lurks.
The most recent story about privacy and Facebook presents a catch-22 whereby the public must consider whether it is more important to be secure in one’s private correspondence or to give up that privacy in an effort to combat crimes against humanity.
The company currently operates software that monitors chats and posts for indications of criminal activity among its users. When the scanning software flags a suspicious chat exchange, it notifies Facebook security employees, who can then determine if police should be notified. It is not clear whether the scanned chats are permanently logged by Facebook.
While most people likely feel uneasy about employees of the social networking site having access to private correspondence, Facebook has sought to mitigate criticism by pointing out that it has already used this method to successfully thwart criminals that even the most strident privacy advocates would likely view with disgust.
In a Reuters report last week, law enforcement and FBI officials lauded Facebook for using its access to vast sums of human data to catch the kind of criminals that even some of the most hardened violent convicts hate: child sexual predators.
Referring to a recent case in which officials apprehended a 30-year-old male pervert who had targeted a 13-year-old Florida girl after receiving a tip from Facebook officials, the article says:
Officers took control of the teenager’s computer and arrested the man the next day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The alleged predator has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.
“The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible,” said Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries…
And goes on to explain:
[Monitoring] efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles’ online chats to teach the software what to seek out…
“There are companies out there that are doing a very good job, working within the confines of what they have available,” said Brooke Donahue, a supervisory special agent with an FBI team devoted to Internet predators and child pornography. “There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability.”
Finding Americans (regardless of how they feel about the entitlement to basic privacy) who disagree that keeping sexual predators away from children is a bad thing would be a task of considerable difficulty, but Facebook’s broad monitoring approach leaves questions unanswered about just how much of its users’ information is put under the microscope. For instance, do personal communications between adults involved in consensual sexual relationships get examined by a Facebook employee if the messages contain sexual language?
The company’s Chief Security Officer, Joe Sullivan, told Reuters that because software monitors the information first for key words and phrases, not employees, privacy is a nonissue unless users are up to no good.
“We’ve never wanted to set up an environment where we have employees looking at private communications, so it’s really important that we use technology that has a very low false-positive rate,” the company said in a statement regarding the process.
And on its website, the company makes it very clear that it is willing to hand law enforcement information about crimes committed by its users:
We may disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matters) if we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law. This may include respecting requests from jurisdictions outside of the United States where we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law under the local laws in that jurisdiction, apply to users from that jurisdiction, and are consistent with generally accepted international standards.
We may also share information when we have a good faith belief it is necessary to prevent fraud or other illegal activity, to prevent imminent bodily harm, or to protect ourselves and you from people violating our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
At present, crimes of sexual predation and serious offenses like murder and assault are the only ones to have received media attention regarding Facebook’s involvement with law enforcement. It is unknown whether the company could change its role to become more involved in crime prevention regarding less serious matters, or even a kind of dragnet for something akin to the “thoughtcrime” discussed in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.
Whether Facebook does more internal monitoring of its users may, however, already be irrelevant to the question of privacy. Simply creating the platform that millions of people willingly use to record very personal details has already aided law enforcement and Federal intelligence-gathering outfits.
In 2009, the CIA’s investment arm In-Q-Tel began pumping money into Visible Technologies, a software firm that produces programs to monitor social media sites to collect public data. At first, the company claimed to be seeking only content that was made public on the Internet by its creators, leaving alone private content like that which is included on Facebook profiles. The CIA claimed it would not be used domestically, but rather as “early-warning detection on how issues are playing internationally.”
Last November, the Department of Homeland Security said it is now operating a “Social Networking/Media Capability” program to monitor online forums, blogs, websites and message boards to collect information to offer “situational awareness.”
Federal officials are increasingly citing the need for acronym-laden Internet bills for everything from protecting children, national defense and copyright to preventing corporations from preying on Internet users. And while the stated intentions may sound reasonable, the ways in which Federal and law enforcement officials are already using the Internet suggest ulterior motives.
The Internal Revenue Service uses social networking sites to find and punish tax dodgers.
The FBI uses information posted on Twitter as evidence enough to raid individuals’ residences.
The State Department recently created a “Tag Challenge” social media game to get citizens to post information they have about alleged criminals. The game promises a $5,000 reward to the first user who finds and uploads photographs of “bad guys.”
Federal agencies want to extend the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which allows phone tapping, to social media and are suggesting the sites begin working on ways to make it easy for the government to snoop.
If the urgency of Federal officials to gain more access into private information on the Internet is any indicator, the snowball of online government infringement will only grow more rapidly in coming years. They claim surveillance is necessary to catch criminals, foil spies and prevent mass uprisings. What Americans must ask themselves is if the promise of catching a few online perverts and averting hypothetical terror attacks is worth coming under the constant Internet surveillance of the state.