On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people at an event by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The event has been labeled a terrorist attack.

After the attack, the New York Times reported that Malik had “talked openly on social media” about her support for and desire to participate in violent jihad, but that her posts had gone undetected during the review of her visa application – the FBI later said that was false.   At the time, President Obama stated that federal officials are “constantly monitoring public posts” on social media in widespread surveillance. And, it’s also been uncovered that police departments around the country track social media in some capacity for criminal investigations, such as identifying suspects and gathering evidence.

Some of the available technologies for social media surveillance include Digital Stakeout, MediaSonarX1 Social Discovery, and Geofeedia. These technologies can be used to covertly monitor, collect, and analyze social media data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In some circumstances, data collection goes beyond what is publicly available. Law enforcement officials have also created fake social media profiles to connect with suspects for the specific purpose of obtaining private information, which has come under heavy criticism.

At the same time that President Obama pointed out law enforcement’s efforts to monitor social media, he also stated:

But if you have private communications between two people that’s harder to discern, by definition. And one of the things we’ll be doing is engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, do a better job if we have a lead, to be able to track suspected terrorists.

But we’re going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person’s texts or emails or social media. If it’s not posted publicly then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level. And you know it raises certain questions about our values.

Keep in mind it was only a couple years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother. And over all I think we’ve struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that US citizens’ privacy is preserved.

The question really becomes, where is the line? And, should there be a line? We touched on this issue during week 6 when we discussed terrorism, and several classmates made great points about the dangers of government surveillance. So then, maybe the real question becomes, how much do we trust our government?

Technological progress is swift and robust. At the same time that social media is growing, so are advances around those to monitor this great new world: devices, location-tracking technologies, communications eavesdropping systems, and new means of collecting ever-more-granular data of all kinds about individuals and their activities. The government is sort of building the plane as they’re flying it, with regard to regulating this space. But, unquestionably, if we are to maintain a democratic political system, we must know how the government intends to deploy privacy-invasive technologies. Thus, minimally, there must be accountability, transparency, and oversight of the government’s use of these types of technologies, at least as related to any communications not intended to be viewable by the public.

Of course, it’s not just the government we need to be worried about.  We also learned during course discussion all the ways that facebook (in particular) and others splice and dice our digital footprints.  Airlines, politicians, and even non-profits are manipulating data to identify new customers or targeting existing ones.

Of course, the simplest deduction is to just limit what you post, share, or otherwise interact with digitally.  One article suggests three simple rules for using social media in a way that keeps your digital footprint close to the vest:

  1. Determine whether you want to go public or private with your social media profiles. If the profiles are set to be public, then be consistent with information you are posting.
  2. Eliminate people and sites from your social networks that you don’t need.
  3. Pay attention to your friend, invite, and connection requests.

Additional reading recommendations:


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