In defence of ‘snooping’
With an inquiry into the government’s use of social media for surveillance and security purposes well under way, it has never been more important to make the distinction between non-intrusive and intrusive social media intelligence (SOCMINT) clear to both the British public and the security authorities.
From surveying Facebook group members to the content analysis of tweets, social media contain a wealth of big data that can already be accessed freely, by public and private bodies, for good, bad and sometimes ugly purposes.
Such data, even if we do not like to admit it, has well and truly entered the public realm; the social equivalent of shouting down a speakerphone on a busy street. A distinction must be made from this kind of public online activity and communication such as email or messaging, which most people regard as private.
While user-selected privacy settings may have attempted to enforce a somewhat half-hearted separation, the over-riding assumption, as Twitter states, is that ‘most of the information you provide to us is information that you are asking us to make public’.
But there is evidence and some very high profile anecdotes (such as the setting up of a Facebook group during the riots, or tweeting about Robin Hood airport) that highlight the need to raise awareness of such trade-offs when using such a powerful communication platform, especially amongst young people. Once we post, publish or tweet, we should do so on the assumption that not only family and friends, but strangers, criminals, public enterprises, businesses, journalists and yes, even governments, could have open access to such content, just as we would expect when interacting in a crowded market place, restaurant or railway station.
Assuming that the rules of social media engagement are clear, if harnessed coherently, why would we reasonably not expect to leverage such a database to make contributions to ensuring security and public safety?
As #Intelligence argues, data collection and analysis techniques for social research should be placed on the same footing as the commercial exploitation of social media analytics. To be sure, this class of data is already being used in transformative ways for marketing and social scientific purposes. Demos’s work in this area is a case in point, with both Inside the EDL and The New Face of Digital Populism employing social media as a way to contact hard-to-reach groups in order to advance our understanding of society.
This does not mean that the collection, retention and analysis of such public information are risk-free, far from it. As #Intelligence notes, in this type of non-intrusive SOCMINT, 'harm is conceived not as intrusion into someone’s private space, nor the wider issues of trust and implied suspicion… but by the loss of control over the information'. The selling of customer information to third parties, for example, remains a particularly worrying development.
If government (or social research institutes, or commercial bodies for that matter) captures large swathes of data, how do they store it? And where? And for how long? If a person decides to leave Facebook, or delete a tweet, how can they also retrieve it once it has been exported elsewhere? As a society we need to ask how long it is that utterances on social media remain relevant and the strength with which they should be considered to accurately represent a person’s views.
Non-intrusive SOCMINT poses a different set of ethical, legal and technical considerations than the monitoring of private exchanges. Non-intrusive ‘snooping’ should not be biased by the fierce public and political enquiry into the use of social media intelligence as intrusive surveillance. When it comes to Twitter and Facebook, the challenge is more to educate people about the risks involved, rather than waste what could be a highly valuable resource.