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Alan W. Silberberg

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Spies Really "Like" Us

Posted: 08/14/11 09:26 PM ET

Social media is a two-edged sword. During mid-2009, in the throes of the Iranian election in the midst of a hot summer, we witnessed the beginnings of social media being used actively as a weapon against the people. Since that time, repression after repression has happened in country after country with social media as a primary driver in allowing the government the information on "WHO" to go after. There have been full-scale revolutions going the other way, where social media played major roles in the overturn of more than one totalitarian run governments: first Tunisia, then in Egypt.

Now we are seeing the beginnings of Western society using social media not only as an active police tool, but actually to spy on citizens. I have written in the past about the two-edged sword of social media around the world. In fact at the 2011 Gov 2.0 LA event, many of the featured speakers from inside and outside government addressed this very issue. Since then other stories, including my own, have brought light to the growing problem of faked social media accounts, including by government officials and politicians, as well as corporations and criminals.

So the recent riots in London brought the question up again of is social media the cause or simply a tool that helps facilitate something that would already be going on? These are some deep societal questions that are being forced on us by our own living the in the land of status, location updates combined with geolocation and deep database information retrieval at our fingertips. This is made especially so due to the use of the social/mobile platforms by activists, at times of crisis, and when the platforms are identified as "causing" something rather than simply being one part of a multilateral, prismatic, real-time and global conversation amongst people.

But where does this lead us in a year, or five years for that matter? Right now most law enforcement agencies are literally just beginning the push to monitor the conversation and try to stop crimes before they happen. But at what point does someone's innocent banter get misinterpreted by either software designed to monitor key word usage or by an employee of a law enforcement agency who mistakes a casual conversation as something else. At what point does this push to monitor the conversation and use technology to enable "pre-crime" arrests cross over into civil rights violations?

Currently there are few to zero laws regarding how conversations on social media can be used by law enforcement, unless there are clear indications or trails to a crime. As part of the global efforts to bring Government 2.0 initiatives to reality, police, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been closely eying the technology. Even then, from the conversations I have been having with several law enforcement officials, no one is really sure how far this information can be used. Many agencies are pressing ahead with "initial pilot programs" of converting monitoring the conversations to arrests and or stopping crime before it happens. But right now there are no filters to help the law enforcement agencies and citizens alike deal with either faked conversations or faked accounts. There have been some high profile arrests, and lots of hand-wringing about what the civil liberties impacts of some of this monitoring might be, and how it will play out in courts.

I posit that the laws around the United States and probably the world need to be updated to ensure that civil rights violations that would not be allowed offline cannot be allowed online. Additionally, there needs to be transparency laws in every state and at the federal level that would demand disclosure by government agencies (except military and intelligence) when they are utilizing faked accounts and or collecting information on people based on their social media usage.

 

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