Defense Media Network

Social Media Surveillance – It’s Here to Stay

For better or worse, social media is the billboard of our lives in today’s digital world. If you have a thought, you can share it. If you want to know what your friends are up to, you can find out. If you want to know which number marriage Kim Kardashian is on or where Tim Tebow might be praying, that is also accessible to you as well.

These networks are equally insightful and useless, but they pull together information in all of its forms for viewers to use however they want. If someone puts a piece of information out there, regardless of what it is, someone will eventually find it and use it for their own purposes, regardless of whatever the original sharing intent might have been. This rule of the digital age seems fairly obvious, but there are those who continue to be surprised when the news media, private individuals, or others use social media sites for purposes other than being social. For example, law enforcement and intelligence-gathering purposes.

Recent news stories detailing how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was monitoring media outlets, news sites, and other social networking platforms have raised some eyebrows. Fears of an Orwellian government system of monitoring people’s behavior seemed to be conjured up by some outlets. Most notable is the Drudge Report’s oft-used moniker of “Big Sis” to describe an “Orwellian” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who apparently has enough time to go through everyone’s Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds to see who is being naughty or nice. Truth is the poor woman probably has barely enough time to read her own mail, let alone breathe.

All of the information that is on social networks is out there because people made a decision to put it out there for one reason or another. By doing so they are engaging in some personal risk as to whether or not that information is used in their interest or against it.

Certainly everyone is definitely entitled to some sense of individual privacy, but the moment an individual decides to push the “Send” or “Post” key, and releases their quip, comment, photo, or whatever to the Internet, those details are now in the public domain … forever. That means that anyone in the public domain can peruse, ignore, or misuse that information for their own purposes, and that includes law enforcement, intelligence services, and everyone else out there.

It would be completely irresponsible for DHS, intelligence, or law enforcement authorities to ignore these valuable resources and the information and insights they can provide. With bad things happening in many forms and in many places, keeping one’s eyes and ears attuned to social media is an indispensable barometer of what is happening at any given time.

There was a time that television was the only medium that could capture the images and happenings of unfolding events around the world. That era is now long gone. Now there is nothing that can keep pace with the thumbs and fingers of first-hand witnesses who can type away at Twitter and Facebook on smartphones and other hand-held electronic tools. It could be a plane landing in the Hudson River or a whopper misstatement by a political candidate – two items that social media captured and exported before any other media outlet knew that either had happened.

With terrorists and other hate groups the world over using the Internet to recruit, train, raise funds, and inspire current and potential followers, it would be unforgivable for law enforcement and intelligence services not keep their eyes open for anything that might tip them off. After the execution of a horrific terrorist event, law enforcement and intelligence officials cannot say, “Well, we didn’t know because we wanted to give them their space and some much-needed privacy.”

There are valid civil liberties’ concerns that should be raised and considered, but when the Internet has become the virtual Main Street for the majority of human connectivity, it is a duty to listen to find out what is happening and what is being said.

This is a lesson that law enforcement learned too late in England this past summer when anger over the shooting of an unarmed black man in a London suburb unleashed nights of riots around the country. A number of riot attacks were rallied, if not outright scheduled, via social media networks. If law enforcement had been monitoring social media outlets, some of these riots may have been stopped in their tracks.

Ironically, the same tool that was used by the rioters to rally their troops to burn shops and loot stores resulted in a number of arrests and prosecutions of those responsible because of the posted names, photos, and claims of responsibility that they posted online. Without law enforcement authorities using these tools for forensic purposes, many of those responsible for the riots and destruction would have gotten away with their crimes.

This is not something unique to England either. Here in the United States, law enforcement officials have learned to monitor social media sites to monitor current or upcoming protests, to keep an eye out on hate groups, safeguard national events, and more.

The fact is simply this: The social media genie is never going to get back into its bottle and go away. It is totally unleashed and has become an integral part of our every-day lives in commerce, education, and most predominantly communications. What we do with social media is as individual as we are. It offers us choices on what to say, how to say it, and whom we say it to. Ultimately the decision of what is posted and shared online is up to each of us, but assuming no one is paying attention is as much a mistake as thinking that posting a picture of yourself online lying on the beach with an extra 40 pounds is a good idea.

There are just some things that are better off not being shared unless you want them held against you for the rest of your life. That’s a lesson lots of people are learning the hard way, and law enforcement and intelligence networks are well within their rights of seeing what we post too.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...