At a press conference earlier today, President Obama was asked by Reuters whether the government monitors the social media posts of foreign nationals traveling to — or seeking residence in — the United States.
The answer was definitive: yes.
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According to Obama:
It’s important to distinguish between posts that are public — social media on a Facebook page — versus private communications through various social media or apps. And our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts and that is part of the visa review process — that people are investigating what individuals have said publicly, and questioned about any statements they maybe made.
This should be a surprise to no one. When you publicly post, to your Facebook wall or Twitter account, these postings are visible to anyone, including the US government.
What was sort of tip-toed around was the implications on private messaging on these platforms. We know that the US government wants Silicon Valley to grant backdoors into encrypted communication channels, but is it something it’s already doing?
The language Obama used in the answer makes the answer impossible to ascertain.
But if you have private communications between two people that’s harder to discern, by definition. And one of the things we’ll be doing is engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, do a better job if we have a lead, to be able to track suspected terrorists.
Obama goes on to say that no government has the capacity to “read every single person’s texts or emails or social media [postings],” but it’s not the man behind the curtain reading our texts that worries us; this is improbable due to the sheer amount of data collected. Instead it’s the bulk collection methods used to store these messages indefinitely that’s troubling.
For now, it’s worth noting that the only confirmed monitoring of your accounts is being done for messages that are already public. That said, this is a much larger issue that’s playing out in front of our eyes, and the answers to big questions on privacy are still developing.