By now you may have heard the news swirling around about the ACLU obtaining records regarding social media data collected through Geofeedia, a social media surveillance company. The claim is that the company allowed law enforcement to target protesters and activists “of color” and thus is a civil rights violation. In response, Twitter and Facebook have revoked Geofeedia’s access to API and data collection methods.
This has sparked attention on the topic of social media content and privacy. We’ve been down this path before, but not quite like this. As more information comes to light, it should come as no surprise that this is one of many tools that law enforcement uses. While the ACLU states that the intent is to target protesters and activists, somehow potentially trying to turn this into a racial argument, they could not be more wrong.
Similar to other surveillance tools, law enforcement and other agencies are using location based social media monitoring to identify potential issues BEFORE they become a situation. The same type of monitoring is also used by marketing companies and brands in order to better understand their customers, monitor service levels at their locations in a real time manner, and enhance their marketing techniques. It doesn’t seem that the ACLU knows this, or cares that consumer civil rights may be violated too (in their opinion).
Fact is, this is the world we live in. Public data, and that is exactly what is obtained through social media monitoring sites, is just that – public. This content is readily available to anyone looking – the software programs out there (and there are more than just Geofeedia) make the process easier. They are not doing anything differently than someone taking an extensive amount of time manually searching across social sites.
If you really think about it, aren’t we lucky that there are people out there, criminals and people with intent to do real harm to others, who are stupid enough to share their plans publicly? If it’s out there, it can be identified and hopefully handled before it’s too late. If a person is posting content publicly, it is out there for the world to see; there has been enough social media education for the general public to know that, if they don’t use privacy settings, they are revoking their right to privacy by posting on public sites.
We’ve seen protests become ugly, not necessarily by the protesters that originally organized event, but instead by “professional protesters” who have the goal of inciting violence with looting, physical violence, or the like. If this can be averted, wouldn’t you want it to be? Protesting is one of our rights, and that is how it should be. Violence is not one of our rights, and having a means of proactively finding potential threats is important.
If you are one that agrees with the ACLU, think of the last mass shooting or other terror related event – what’s the first thing that people turn to in an attempt to learn more about the person involved? What did you hear first? Questions such as, “Did they post anything on social media? Were there clues that could have prevented this?” And then, if there was content that should have raised a red flag, the public angrily asks “What wasn’t this caught before it happened?” Pretty hypocritical, if you ask me.
Social media comes with responsibility, and a certain amount of loss of privacy. It is what it is. However, social sites have worked to create privacy filters so that the general public can share content within their comfort level of privacy. If people do not use these filters, then they are indirectly allowing their content to become public information.
It’ll be interesting to see how this progresses, but I do not believe the ACLU has a leg to stand on in this case. I think Twitter and Facebook made a reactionary decision based on public pressure, but I don’t think this is the end of social media monitoring.