Thursday, January 5, 2012

Big Brother: A Twit?

I bookmarked this before Christmas, but I still think it's interesting enough to share, if you haven't seen it already:

An online privacy group is suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security accusing it of not releasing records from the agency's covert surveillance of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

The DHS creates accounts solely to monitor social media sites and establish a system of records of the information gathered. The agency does not post information, seek to connect with other users, accept invitations to connect or interact with others according to a statement on their website.

The agency scans social media sites for a list of words that include "dirty bomb," "hostage," "exercise," "task force," "explosion," "lockdown," "riot," "nuclear threat," "brown out," "meth lab," "cain and abel" and "brute forcing." [...]

Former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett said this initiative is nothing new.

"One of the biggest overlooked areas of the federal government when it comes to crime and terrorism is diligently searching public source information," said Garrett.

Garrett said the DHS can see online information that's not available to the public as long as they have legal authority, in the form of a search warrant, to do so. But often people leave private information open to the public.

"People today are very open about their thoughts and feelings on a number of different topics. It amazes me the amount of information people will write about themselves online. There's a false security about the anonymity of sitting in front of a computer screen and saying things you wouldn't say in public or in front of your parents or your spouse," said Garrett.

Well, I'm glad I'm off Facebook, and have never had a Twitter account.

Kidding, kidding. Sort of.

What disturbs me about this sort of thing is that otherwise intelligent people might see this and shrug. Who cares? The government is spying on us all the time. Most of us have left a trail of public records out there, and we know when we sign up for social media that the person reading our posts might be a government agent. So long as we don't post anything weird, and we're not actually criminals, we should be fine, right? We have nothing to hide.

While all of that is true, the idea that a little light government snooping is the price we should all be prepared to pay in order to interact with each other on social networks is galling to me as an American. As I wrote in my post about quitting Facebook, it is deeply disturbing to think that a company can hand over, without my knowledge, information that it once required at least a court order for someone to get. It's even more disturbing to realize that writing a Facebook post or a Tweet about two biblical characters (see the list above) can suddenly attract the attention of the United States Government.

It is noxious to the idea of freedom that one's government is totally free to spy upon one anytime one makes a statement which is not really intended to be completely public, but rather to be shared with one's circle of friends and acquaintances alone. Of course, one can decide not to accept friends or followers with suspiciously government-sounding names who never actually post anything; but can one really trust all of one's other friends and followers to act with similar savvy?


phy1729 said...

To be fair, Cain and Abel is password cracking software. However, I entirely agree that users of social networking sites have a reasonable expectation of privacy which the government should respect. This is one of the reasons I support wide spread use of strong cryptography.

Red Cardigan said...

I like your phrase, "reasonable expectation of privacy." To me, social networking sites are sort of like a virtual get-together or party of some kind. Yes, the hired caterer *could* be a government spy, but ordinarily party-goers shouldn't have to watch what they say lest they end up on a watch list or something.

Lindsay said...

Which is why I have all my privacy settings high on Facebook. It isn't perfect, but I don't trust friends to discriminate in choosing THEIR friends, lol.

Corita said...

I got off of Facebook last October and man, does it feel good. Especially when I read this kind of thing.

I made a Twitter account to follow some people but I realized there is no way to send tweets to anyone without making my account public, so that *everybody* could read the tweets. Oh, well.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I don't do Facebook or Twitter either. I have occasionally considered it, because there are a few people I am otherwise out of touch with, who have invited me. But this gives me pause.

To give The State its due, any content that is truly accessible to the public, to anyone who cares to look, is fair game for the government to listen to, just like a speech given in a public park, or reading the newspapers, which I'm sure the FBI has people doing.

However, anything that requires cracking codes, over-riding privacy settings, getting the cooperation of the administrator to give you access, should require a warrant, and probable cause, as with any phone line, private conversation in the privacy of one's home, etc.