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This article was published on August 13, 2019

FBI proposal outlines plans for large-scale collection of social media data

FBI proposal outlines plans for large-scale collection of social media data
Ravie Lakshmanan

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is planning to step up its efforts to monitor social media platforms more aggressively in order to detect potential threats.

The move, according to the Wall Street Journal, clashes with Facebook’s privacy policies and “possibly its attempts to comply with a record $5 billion settlement with the U.S. government reached last month.”

The law enforcement agency is said to be seeking technological solutions from third-party contractors that would make it possible to harvest publicly-available information en masse from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

While the vendors may not be able to glean much information from private accounts, it appears that details like names, photos, and usernames will be collected and combined with other already available datasets to get a deeper understanding of the individuals’ online whereabouts.

The FBI said the data collected will be used “to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests.”

Facebook’s dilemma

In the wake of recent mass shootings in the US, President Donald Trump squarely placed the blame on internet and social media for harboring places “to radicalize disturbed minds” and urged the Justice Department to work with companies “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

Designing the tools is one thing, but amassing detailed dossiers of people by combining social data with information gathered from other sources has a number of privacy and security implications.

This is compounded by the fact that scraping such data may flout the privacy policies of these social networks, which have prohibited the use of public data for surveillance purposes. Facebook, in particular, will likely find it tough to balance the agency’s requirements vis-à-vis complying with Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) settlement terms outlined last month.

Facing the heat over mishandling of user data in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the company is expected to implement a comprehensive data security program with an aim to prevent abuse of public data — the kind of information FBI plans to collect on a large scale.

Making it more stringent, the accountability program also extends to additional companies Facebook controls, like Instagram, WhatsApp, and other Facebook-owned affiliates that it shares consumers’ information with for the next twenty years.

The privacy vs. security battle

This is once again a classic case of privacy vs. security, where one arm of the government wants to impose stricter privacy measures, while another wishes to leverage the platform for snooping. But social networks are far from the only actors involved.

Recently, Vice reported how Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance company, is coaching law enforcement on different means to convince residents to share camera footage with them without a warrant.

The security subsidiary even went on to briefly run a “Digital Neighborhood Watch” program in 2017 that encouraged people to report “suspicious activity” in exchange for free or discounted Ring products, according to a presentation obtained by Motherboard last week.

For a company that has found itself trapped in a never-ending cyle of privacy missteps, Facebook will have to proceed with caution, lest it be freshly accused of breaking FTC promises. The last thing Facebook needs is another privacy blunder on its hands.

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