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Social Media Surveillance

by Jayson Hawkins

Big Brother is still watching. Amid a growing chorus of troubling reports about the extraordinarily effective efforts of the police state in China to spy on its citizens’ online activity, evidence continues to accumulate showing that police excel at snooping around social media in America, too. In a report released in January 2022 by the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law details how “social media has become a significant source of information for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”

The processes by which this information is collected vary, but for many, the most troubling aspect is what the government is looking for. Agencies like Customs and Border Protection and the FBI routinely scan for keywords and check “people of interest,” including journalists and activists, against a variety of public and private databases.

The problem is that police are ill suited to the process of parsing through often hyperbolic online posts to determine which represent a serious intent to commit an illegal act and which are constitutionally protected free speech. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government to force disclosure of the rules governing the process, and court-ordered disclosures revealed that there are no real rules.

According to the Washington Post, the FBI uses private contractors like Dataminr and ZeroFox to “scrape” social media for useful intelligence. Once an item of interest is found, social media companies generally comply with government requests for more information.

For example, after the January 6 riot, the FBI wanted data on the movements of suspected participants. In response, “telecoms volunteered the locations of cellphones, Facebook offered up selfies posted inside the capitol, and Google provided precise location data.”

Rather than be alarmed at the capacity and complicity of these companies, some, like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), are pushing for more. “[It] is an intelligence failure that is the failure to see all the evidence that was out there to be seen of the propensity for violence that day, a lot of it on social media.”

What such proponents of more surveillance forget is the government’s tendency to spend excessive amounts of time watching minorities and activists, a habit unlikely to be broken by raising the total amount of surveillance. The Brennan Center report outlines how easy it is for the government to snoop into social media, but neither the report nor anyone else has put forward a credible plan for how to make them stop. 


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