Why Government Use of Social Media Monitoring Software Is a Direct Threat to Our Liberty and Privacy

A version of this post originally appeared at the ACLU of Oregon.

As we’ve previously written about, analysts at the Oregon Department of Justice used a tool called Digital Stakeout to surveil people — including the department’s very own director of civil rights — who used over 30 hashtags on social media, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #fuckthepolice. While an internal investigation confirmed the illegal surveillance and made recommendations to ensure it doesn’t happen again, much less attention has been paid to the tool itself.

Digital Stakeout is social media monitoring software (SMMS) that can be used to covertly monitor, collect, and analyze our social media data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It is part of a rapidly expanding industry that the public knows little about. Our goal here is to answer a few basic questions about SMMS: What can the technology do? How widespread is the use of SMMS by law enforcement in Oregon? What privacy concerns does it raise? And how we can protect free speech and privacy moving forward?

In summary, SMMS is a high-tech tool for surveilling and engineering our future world. 

What is SMMS?

SMMS is a booming industry. Products like XI Social Discovery, Geofeedia, Dataminr, Dunami, and SocioSpyder (to name just a few) are being purchased in droves by Fortune 500 companies, politicians, law enforcement, federal agencies, defense contractors, and the military. Even the CIA has a venture fund, In-Q-Tel, that invests in SMMS technology.

This isn’t just about searching for key words. Instead, SMMS performs highly sophisticated fishing expeditions across the internet, using complex algorithms to analyze and organize data into much more than a set of search results. 

Social media monitoring software can be used to geographically track us as we communicate. It can chart out our relationships, networks, and associations. It can monitor protests, identify the leaders of political and social movements, and measure our influence. It is also promoted as a predictor of future events, including threat assessment, and as an instrument for manipulating public opinion. In summary, SMMS is a high-tech tool for surveilling and engineering our future world. 

By its very nature, SMMS improperly blankets a whole range of innocent people without any evidence of wrongdoing. Instead of specific criminal activity prompting an investigation, investigators use SMMS to cast nets so wide they encompass the entire internet.

What are the risks? 

This type of government surveillance raises many privacy concerns. Rather than accepting its use by law enforcement as our inevitable future, we should consider the serious implications for our society. 

Silencing discourse. It should give us great pause to hear that SMMS is being used to politically profile, track, and target innocent people who express political opinions online. People like Erious Johnson, director of civil rights at the Oregon Department of Justice, and who knows how many more. 

recent study revealed what really happens when we know we are being constantly watched — voices are silenced. Professor Elizabeth Stoycheff of Wayne State University has shown that people who support surveillance and say they have nothing to hide are actually the most likely to avoid sharing unpopular opinions when they know government is watching. We lose the ability to discuss ideas openly when we fear we will be punished for them. 

Even innocent people who know they are being watched are intimidated into self-censorship. Yet robust public conversations and debates about controversial and difficult topics make us stronger as a nation. That is exactly why our founders enshrined strong protections for a broad marketplace of ideas in the First Amendment.

Targeting innocent speech. When everything and everyone is potentially suspect, innocent people become targets. Despite claims to the contrary by the companies that market this technology, we can’t accurately predict the future by measuring sentiment and profiling people on the internet. Internet speech is often hyperbolic and inflammatory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a person or group is dangerous. Internet speech can also be easily misunderstood, particularly when it is interpreted by a system that relies on the biases of its users and programmers.

Making devastating mistakes. False alarms and mistakes, such as mistaking the Public Enemy logo as a threat to law enforcement, can be devastating — even when we are innocent. Unjustly becoming a target can be frightening, feel like an intrusive violation, result in embarrassing and uncomfortable public exposure, and threaten our civil liberties. 

Misuse and abuse. SMMS can easily be aimed at anyone who threatens existing power, whistleblowers, people who have reported misconduct, or someone an agent personally dislikes. In a country with a long history of targeting dissent, often in communities of color, we should be wary anytime a tool of this nature is wielded. 

Which Oregon law enforcement agencies are using SMMS?

Like many of the ever-evolving and new forms of technological surveillance, it is hard to know just how many law enforcement agencies in Oregon are using SMMS. In fact, when a reporter asked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum whether the public would have ever learned of the DOJ’s tracking of social media hashtags with DigitalStakeout had it not ensnared her own director of civil rights, she said she didn’t know.

If national trends are any indication, it is likely there are other agencies in Oregon using this type of powerful surveillance tool. Since we don’t know exactly who is using it, we also don’t know how SMMS is being used, what policies and training (if any) are being implemented or followed, and who is being watched. 

What can we do to protect to our privacy?

As technology gets more and more sophisticated, it is a critical time to protect privacy. It is not about putting blinders on law enforcement but rather about setting appropriate limits that protect our rights and liberties. Oregon law enforcement and policy makers should consider the following guidelines:

  1. The public needs to know what government agencies use digital surveillance tools, like SMMS, and how extensive their use is. Ultimately, this comes down to transparency and accountability. Without knowing what our government is doing, we cannot ensure that our rights will be protected or that wrongdoing will be corrected. 
  2. The public should have an opportunity to provide input on if, when, and how surveillance tools like SMMS are used. We should understand the risks and benefits and be involved in the conversations and decision making before government starts using new technologies to watch us. If the risks are too great, particularly if innocent people are bound to get caught up in intrusive government surveillance, we should be allowed to say no, or at the very least, to set strict limits. 
  3. Government officials should take a hard look at their use of surveillance technology and regularly report on its use. More specifically, government agencies should be required to publicly assess privacy risks, adopt strict privacy policies and training, and be proactive to mitigate potential risks before new technology is used. Government agencies should also be required to routinely audit their surveillance systems and regularly report to the community about whether technology is achieving its public safety purpose and whether civil liberties protections are being followed.
  4. There must be clear consequences for violating surveillance rules and policies. This should include exclusion of evidence in criminal prosecutions, potential termination of anyone engaged in misconduct, fines against the offending agency, and civil rights actions. 

 We can be safe and free, and we must insist on it now. 

This post is part of a series exploring what we have learned about the DOJ surveillance of Black Lives Matter in Oregon. Click here to see all of our posts on this topic.

View comments (18)
Read the Terms of Use

jayram1408

What a idiot, History repeats it's self. Nazi Germany started it's totalitarian control of everything it's citizens did by the burning of the Reichstag (parliament) building as a pretext for taking complete control of all Government functions. This is no different then George Bush's false terrorist bombing of the world trade center. This would set the precedent for the false flag of taking away US citizens rights under a false flag of "terrorism". Any new law that shreds our constitutional rights is always introduced as a tool to fight "terrorism". Example; the Patriot act, ironically the most unpatriotic act ever passed. It violates the Fourth Amendment, which says the government cannot conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause to believe that the person has committed or will commit a crime. It violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech by prohibiting the recipients of search orders from telling others about those orders, even where there is no real need for secrecy. It violates the First Amendment by effectively authorizing the FBI to launch investigations of American citizens in part for exercising their freedom of speech. It violates the Fourth Amendment by failing to provide notice - even after the fact - to persons whose privacy has been compromised. Notice is also a key element of due process, which is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The truth is now is those in power will try to remain in power by making anyone who speaks out as a "Domestic terrorist" and then using these laws that are supposed to protect its citizens against them. Some day in the near future we will see the Military Industrial Corporate complex taking over and our leaders bowing to them as so many now do and have. It makes me sick and you all should be too.

Anonymous

riteriteriterite

Miami_Fisherman

We live in turbulent times right now. I think that regardless of which side wins, either a left or right wing authoritarian government would already have the names of every "enemy" who has already self-identified as a potential "problem". How easy it would have been for Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin: Instead of an over-arching intelligence apparatus to root out sedition, just click and print the list. My cousin was murdered by the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1974. My wife's uncle was shot against the wall in Cuba in 1959. I hate them all , because they are all murderers. When the shit hits the fan, they ACTUALLY KILL PEOPLE. Millenials may not have bar codes stamped on them, but the Boomers built an addictive digital infrastructure that tracks you from cradle to grave.

Anonymous

If you are looking for Managed WordPress Hosting that is isolated from other users on the server, We provides you with everything for which you have been waiting for. Our hosting is built on a blazing-fast SSD latest hardware That's Highly tuned for optimum performance. The hosting includes the latest WP version, plugins, themes, automated daily backups, anytime money back, 99.97% uptime and 24x7 support.

https://nestify.io/managed-wordpress-hosting/

Anonymous.....stop

The government should not have access to the social media

Anonymous

You can мake goverռments and ad ᴄ೦ᴍpaռi℮s ᴡorκ harᏧeᴦ wɪth tհ℮ir κeyѡ௦rԁ trіgger℮d m௦nit٥rɩπg αnd ˛ᴨſ੦ gαtһerіng softѡaгe¸ Ƅy ᴄᴏnfᴜƽιոg ιᴛ liкe tհis

Anonymous

sfsnd

Just a kid who ...

I think the government should not be able to monitor our social media fully, but I think they should to some extent. If the government fully monitors our social media and someone hacks into the government data base they can find out a lot of stuff about a lot of people. Also if your friend or family member try to do a "funny prank" on you but it isn't funny and it is actually serious, like threatening to do something that could harm others. Even tho you wouldn't and nether would they. The government may see that and not know it is a prank, or not care and then come and arrest you and do a whole investigation on you and your family.
Then you and your family will be known as the family that once got arrested for "threatening" to do something on social media. Then the government may even ban you from social media and it will even hurt your social life. But word can and will spread, if you already have a job your boss and co-workers will know, which will make them treat you different from how they did before. And if you apply for a job when the person who interviewed you does a background check on you he will see what happened and that may change his opinion on you. And that is why the government shouldn't be aloud to see all of your media fully.

Pages

Stay Informed