Your Social Media Is (Probably) Being Watched Right Now, Says New Surveillance Report
By Zak Doffman
The use of automated tools to enable mass surveillance of social media accounts is spiralling out of control. So says a new report from Freedom on the Net, which warns that nine in every 10 internet users are being actively monitored online. And where this might have been done by armies of analysts in the past, it is now automated. Advances in AI and pattern analytics have enabled billions of accounts to be watched in real time. The report highlights the darker parts of the internet world—China, Russia, parts of the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia, but it also cites examples of monitoring in the U.S. and Europe, and the development of commercial tools with western government money that then end up in the hands of questionable regimes.
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There is a balancing act when it comes the monitoring of social media and online messaging and data sharing. That debate has been headline news in recent months as we look to Facebook, Twitter and others to remove hatred and violence, to police a staggering volume of data. Passive monitoring—censorship, is linked to more active monitoring where individuals are highlighted, their relationships and networks probed, threads pulled. One balancing act deals with the imperatives of law enforcement agencies charged with tackling terrorism, people and drug trafficking, child abuse, money laundering and the the billions of citizens whose privacy should be respected and protected. Another balancing act deals with the capabilities given to agencies subject to sensible levels of legal restrictions and those same tools being scaled for population control and political suppression.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal may have exposed the raw truth about data security and manipulation on social media, but the issue is rooted in the platforms—the potential for deriving intelligence from otherwise innocuous data. Many of the tools are new, leveraging AI and pattern analytics to map relationships between people “through link analysis,” to use natural language processing to “assign meaning or attitude to social media posts,” and to mine data for information about “past, present, or future locations.” And so are you really being watched? Probably.
The report claims that 89% of the world’s internet users are being actively monitored—around 3 billion people. As you’d expect when it comes to mass population monitoring and the use of technology to advance population control, China leads the way. But of the 65 countries covered in the report, there are another 39 in addition to China which “have instituted advanced social media surveillance programs.”
The reality check for millions of us is that we’re not as different and unique as we might think we are. And knowing that, with enough data to back it up, our behavior can be monitored and then manipulated. Essentially we all now subscribe by choice to the platforms that are being used keep tabs on us and put into effect mass scale population control. “Once the preserve of the world’s foremost intelligence agencies,” Freedom on the Net warns, “this form of mass surveillance has made its way to a range of countries, from major authoritarian powers to smaller or poorer states that nevertheless hope to track dissidents and persecuted minorities.”
This intersection between social media and government action has been highlighted in Hong Kong, Russia and Xinjiang. But we have also seen nationwide programs in China to assess the population and ascribe citizen scoring. We have seen Russia’s new sovereign internet scheme to provide monitoring probes sitting between its population and the platforms they use. And we have even seen the U.S. turn to social media as a means of screening for immigration threats.
Almost all of us have now inadvertently opted into a data goldmine that can now be widely accessed. And while the platforms claim they protect our data from monitoring and interference, much of the data is available commercially and mass scraping tools can readily mine all those sources, even if some gentle social engineering needs to be applied to gain access. “Even when it concerns individuals who seldom interact with such services,” Freedom on the Net says, “the information that is collected, generated, and inferred about them holds tremendous value not only for advertisers, but increasingly for law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well.”
In China, the report says, quasi-commercial organizations have built platforms that now monitor hundreds of millions of citizens. Some of that we know because the security controls are often so loose around those data repositories that we have seen a number of breaches. But it isn’t just China. In the U.S., data mining tools have been developed, often seeded with government venture funding, and then acquired to fuel investigations into serious crime. But, the report warns, “law enforcement and other agencies at the local, state, and federal levels are increasingly repurposing them for more questionable practices, such as screening travelers for their political views, tracking students’ behavior, or monitoring activists and protesters.”
While from an internet freedoms perspective, Western Europe and North America are coloured green on the report’s interactive map, mass data surveillance is also on the rise there, in the U.S. to monitor visitors to the country and in the U.K. to “monitor nearly 9,000 activists from across the political spectrum—many of whom had no criminal background— using geolocation tracking and sentiment analysis on data scraped from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.”
There is always a need for balance when it comes to reports on data surveillance. As consumers of such online services, we value our privacy but we also demand safety and security. Determining where to draw that line is a matter of assessing where public consent starts and ends—the trade offs we are willing to make. We have seen this same debate over end-to-end messaging encryption and government aspirations to introduce back doors on an “as needed” basis. The same two arguments pertain with messaging as with social media monitoring. How much is too much, and who determines which “good guys” get access to the tech.
There is another theme in this report which should worry us all. There is a pincer movement taking place. Countries around the world can tap into government surveillance tech from China and commercial variants from the U.S., Europe and Israel. And it is becoming significantly harder to exercise control over that. In parallel, as we all use the same social media platforms in much the same way, there is a worryingly level playing field being put into effect. Social media is “tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms—as a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019.”