How Facebook and Twitter could become the new faces of government surveillance

Continuous surveillance has become the new normal in America.

But now the government wants to order social media sites to effectively comb themselves for evidence of “terrorist activity” and turn those records over to agencies like the FBI and other federal authorities. A proposed bill Senate bill hopes to make such legislation the letter of the law, and Facebook is prepared to support it. “We share the government’s goal of keeping terrorist content off our site,” explained Monika Bickert, the company’s Head of Policy Management.

It’s a reflection of the constant leveling up of security culture in the United States. By progressing incrementally, the government has managed to dodge many direct challenges to the steady chipping away of privacy rights that has become a hallmark of the post September 11 era. By outsourcing that surveillance to private parties, the government is eroding our right to privacy even further, creating an environment where there is no place left to hide.

During the Bush Administration, a secret, warrantless wiretapping program provided limitless  access to civilian information—including phone and Internet records. A decade later, the National Security Agency’s methods have evolved, using take cellphone towers, known as “interceptors,” to collecting user data for local police and government agencies. However, intelligence agencies want to go the extra mile and compel consumer services to give up their users without cause or warrants.

The relevant clause is buried deep in the Senate’s Intelligence Authorization Act, which also requires House approval to pass:

Whoever, while engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public through a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, obtains actual knowledge of any terrorist activity… shall, as soon as reasonably possible, provide to the appropriate authorities the facts or circumstances of the alleged terrorist activities.

Should Congress approve the bill, it may follow in the footsteps of the PATRIOT Act and other legislation that had long-lasting consequences for freedom of speech and civil rights in America.

The bill doesn’t explain why the government needs social media to conduct its own methods of surveillance, since the NSA already does so on its own—and with a high degree of efficiency. As early as 2012, the government was already actively mining social media for the wealth of accounts run by terrorist groups and individual radicals. Across the Web, terrorist groups use the Internet for organizing, disseminating information, recruiting new members, and more—it creates a highly distributed and often anonymized platform with considerable reach, which is precisely why everyone else likes to use it.

Congress and intelligence agencies point to the potential use of social media as a terrorist recruitment and information dissemination tool to support an argument for infringing on the civil rights of users. But constitutionally, people are guaranteed the right to free speech and association—and a bill requiring the sites that host them to look over their shoulders will have a chilling effect.

It’s a reflection of the constant leveling up of security culture in the United States. 

The bill doesn’t require services like Twitter to scan themselves for such information and turn it over, but it’s effectively implied. Members of the committee, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), argue that sites like Twitter and Facebook already remove such content for violating their terms of service. However, Feinstein added, “[T]he companies do not proactively monitor their sites to identify such content nor do they inform the FBI when they identify or remove their content. I believe they should.”

The Senate bill, thus, would simply require them to go the extra mile, turning the content and associated information over to the government so officials can evaluate it as a threat. If the government succeeds in requiring social media providers to submit data about suspended and flagged accounts, it’s effectively making Facebook and Twitter branches of the NSA.

Although Feinstein argues that social media platforms need to do more, the bill she’s supporting is fixing a problem these companies are already working to address on their own—with mixed results. In 2014, Twitter joined companies like Facebook in getting much more aggressive about flagging and removing terrorist content, such as the horrific video of James Foley’s beheading that spread quickly across online networks.

J.M. Berger, writing for the Brookings Institute, discusses the scope of the issue, noting that a minimum of 45,000 Twitter accounts are associated with ISIS, which has taken to the service with a vengeance. “We noted that almost 800 confirmed ISIS supporter accounts were suspended between fall 2014 and January 2015,” Berger writes. “This may be the tip of the iceberg, as we also identified almost 18,000 accounts related to the ISIS network, which were suspended during the same time frame.”

But social networking providers repeatedly demonstrate that their algorithms for identifying prohibited or questionable content are not sufficient. For example, abuse, bullying, and harassment continue to be widespread, despite claims that services like Twitter are fixing their endemic trolling issues.

Although Twitter just invested in an artificial intelligence program designed for visual recognition so it can find and flag porn—with an eye to invest more resources in artificial intelligence and neural networks—even that may not be the solution. AI already struggles with issues like differentiating actual threats from commentary or criticism. Something as simple as a link to an interesting article with a brief comment could be flagged for government action if the post includes a mention of London’s July 7 bombings or domestic terrorism.

If the government succeeds in requiring social media providers to submit data about suspended and flagged accounts, it’s effectively making Facebook and Twitter branches of the NSA.

Now, users concerned with having their accounts accidentally suspended over inoffensive content—a known issue on social media—could find themselves not just fighting for reinstatement, but also targeted by intelligence agencies for scrutiny. This makes it impossible to have conversations via one of the most powerful and effective platforms in human history.

If a few innocent fish are caught in the net, the government may justify it on the grounds of protecting the nation from terrorism. In a conversation with Reuters, an unnamed government official rationalized that the newly proposed bill is intended to  “protect” services, perhaps from uproar and potential lawsuits among their users.

Most users are conscious on at least some level that government agencies scrape their status updates, Tweets, and Instagram photos; all of this is public data, and intelligence agencies don’t need warrants to collect it. However, the tables turn when websites are pushed to hand data over, turning surveillance from a passive to proactive experience as social media becomes not just the host but also the narc. Suddenly, consumers are forced to look the issue in the face, with surveillance becoming unavoidable when the services they trust admit that they are also spying on their users.

This is the natural next step for a country that has been slowly cracking down on civil liberties, with an escalating series of scandals illustrating that the government can and does access private consumer data without warrants. As compromises to civil rights become more and more apparent, Americans are starting to wake up to what they have lost and what they stand to lose. This bill highlights yet another turning point in surveillance culture, limiting the most fundamental right to speak freely and without fear of reprisal.

Using Twitter isn’t an act of treason—but it could become one.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

 Illustration by Max Fleishman

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.