December 14, 2009 – 11:59 ET
So ominously began an editorial in Sunday’s New York Times.
Those with accounts at such websites should pay attention, for according to the Times, and other sources, Big Brother is watching you:
The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that state revenue agents have been searching for tax scofflaws by mining information on MySpace and Facebook. In October, the F.B.I. searched the New York home of a man suspected of helping coordinate protests at the Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh by sending out messages over Twitter.
The Boston Globe reported on this matter in January:
In an informal survey of 14 departments in this area, officials in half of them said they use social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace in detective work – particularly in investigations involving young people.
Wired magazine reported in October:
America’s spy agencies want to read your blog posts, keep track of your Twitter updates — even check out your book reviews on Amazon.
In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA and the wider intelligence community, is putting cash into Visible Technologies, a software firm that specializes in monitoring social media. It’s part of a larger movement within the spy services to get better at using ”open source intelligence” — information that’s publicly available, but often hidden in the flood of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports generated every day.
The Times continued:
This month the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law sued the Department of Defense, the C.I.A. and other federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more about their use of social networking sites.
The suit seeks to uncover what guidelines these agencies have about this activity, including information about whether agents are permitted to use fake identities or to engage in subterfuge, such as tricking people into accepting Facebook friend requests.
Privacy law was largely created in the pre-Internet age, and new rules are needed to keep up with the ways people communicate today. Much of what occurs online, like blog posting, is intended to be an open declaration to the world, and law enforcement is within its rights to read and act on what is written. Other kinds of communication, particularly in a closed network, may come with an expectation of privacy. If government agents are joining social networks under false pretenses to spy without a court order, for example, that might be crossing a line.
Scary stuff indeed.
So be careful with your next Tweet or Facebook status, for you never know who’s watching.
On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how Obama-loving media follow this story.
After all, the press were constantly bashing the Bush White House concerning electronic surveillance designed to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.
The Times might be pleased with itself by publishing an editorial on this subject in its opinion section, but under the previous administration, this would have resulted in a front page story with thousands of words.
The Times published a piece in its Business section last November that touched on this very subject:
Propelled by new technologies and the Internet’s steady incursion into every nook and cranny of life, collective intelligence offers powerful capabilities, from improving the efficiency of advertising to giving community groups new ways to organize.
But even its practitioners acknowledge that, if misused, collective intelligence tools could create an Orwellian future on a level Big Brother could only dream of.
Collective intelligence could make it possible for insurance companies, for example, to use behavioral data to covertly identify people suffering from a particular disease and deny them insurance coverage. Similarly, the government or law enforcement agencies could identify members of a protest group by tracking social networks revealed by the new technology. “There are so many uses for this technology — from marketing to war fighting — that I can’t imagine it not pervading our lives in just the next few years,” says Steve Steinberg, a computer scientist who works for an investment firm in New York.
In a widely read Web posting, he argued that there were significant chances that it would be misused, “This is one of the most significant technology trends I have seen in years; it may also be one of the most pernicious.”
Twelve months later, and under a new supposedly more open administration, such fears are being realized.
Will the monitoring of social networking sites by government agencies produce similar outrage with a Democrat in the White House?
—Noel Sheppard is the Associate Editor of NewsBusters.