At a time when the general population in the U.S. is more aware than ever before of privacy issues raised by social media usage, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appears ready and willing to ramp up its social media surveillance activities. According to a new request for proposal (RFP) that the FBI distributed in early July, the goal is to develop an “early alerting tool” that would enable the FBI to “proactively identify and reactively monitor” persons of interest or suspects in ongoing cases.
These subjects of social media surveillance would theoretically only include criminals, terrorists and dangerous threats – but it’s easy to see how abuse of such a tool could turn everyday citizens into suspects and subjects of social media surveillance. The type of data that could be collected by the FBI includes user IDs, email addresses, IP addresses and telephone numbers. Using information collected from Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the FBI would be capable of creating some very sophisticated profiles of “persons of interest” in any criminal matter or investigation. The social media surveillance tool, thanks to the ubiquity of social media in the digital age, would enable the Bureau to follow the whereabouts and actions of just about every single American.
The new urgency behind real-time social media surveillance
In many ways, the new urgency behind creating an early alerting tool is based on the growing number and diversity of threats to the United States. These threats include global criminal syndicates; foreign intelligence services gathering data and information on U.S. citizens; and international terrorist groups determined to sow confusion, discord and destruction on U.S. soil. And, most notably, given the recent wave of mass shootings in the United States, such a social media surveillance tool might be used to find and detect potential “home grown” terrorist threats – in other words, the types of demented individuals distributing their deranged manifestos across social media or using tools like live-streaming functionality to broadcast their horrendous attacks in real-time.
And, in fact, throughout its RFP for the social media surveillance tool, the FBI directly mentions the need for real-time monitoring capabilities. The idea, of course, is that the FBI might be “tipped off” to a certain crime or terrorist event before it even happens, just by keeping a careful watch on social media. The “ability to monitor social media” becomes, in essence, the same thing as “real-time surveillance.” In the wrong hands, in fact, it could become something far worse.
Privacy concerns raised by social media surveillance
The FBI refers to this as the “mission-critical exploitation of social media,” but privacy experts see this new tool as a very different form of “exploitation” – the exploitation of personal privacy by law enforcement. As organizations such as the ACLU have already warned, there is rampant opportunity for abuse of this tool. It’s easy to see how just about any U.S. citizen might get pulled into a massive surveillance operation, simply by using a certain word or phrase on social media. Even a slang expression – such as “that event was the bomb last night” – might be easily interpreted to mean something very different by the authorities.
After mass shooting events like El Paso and Dayton, it’s no wonder that everyone is on edge these days. In both cases, the suspects involved in the case seemed to leave a very easy social media trail for investigators to follow, and the hope here obviously that the very worst mass shootings and terrorist events can be avoided in the future.
Yet, at the same time, doesn’t this FBI scheme for social media surveillance sound a lot like the “pre-crime” tool in the famous Hollywood blockbuster film “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise? In that movie, a group of “pre-cogs” were able to look into the future to detect a possible crime, and then alert the relevant law enforcement authorities. But is that really the type of world that we want to be living in? Remember, any social media surveillance tool is never going to be 100% accurate. Even a tool that is 99% accurate would imply the risk that thousands of people might get rounded up for crimes they never committed.
Other misguided attempts at social media surveillance
And, certainly, there have been other attempts in the recent past at various types of social media surveillance. For example, the CIA has already adopted various forms of social media monitoring tools. And, back in 2016, the FBI contracted an outside third-party vendor (Dataminr) in order to parse through the “firehose” of Twitter content in order to find various clues that might lead them to criminals, terrorists and domestic threats.
Clearly, the FBI is focused on efforts to “detect, disrupt and investigate an ever-growing diverse range of threats.” This has emboldened the FBI to the point where the intelligence agency is not even hiding behind veiled euphemisms or vague terms – the FBI is very direct about what it is expecting from a social media surveillance tool. Yes, the agency has promised to respect all privacy and civil liberties concerns, but does anyone really believe that law enforcement agencies will avoid the temptations involved in obtaining real-time access to a full range of social media exchanges? The FBI has decided that, in addition to Twitter, both Facebook and Instagram are worthy targets of social media surveillance.
Public blowback to social media surveillance plans