Social media has extended the reach of our government while raising the public’s expectations of those in power, but it has gone too far. The explosion of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter allow people to share their thoughts, feelings, pictures, videos, and insights. These and many other social networking sites have led to the creation of some of the largest user generated databases in the world, something the FBI and the CIA could have only dreamed of accomplishing. More government agencies are now active on social media as well, adding some much needed transparency of those in power.
The Obama 2012 campaign used data analytics and the experimental method to assemble a winning coalition (Issenberg, 2012). Interestingly enough, this kind of peering in from ‘big brother’ holds a fairly favorable public opinion. When big data is used to rally voters in an honest and open fashion, we are happy to accept that our personal data has been utilized without consent. The choice of mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better (Orwell, Page 152).
Government agencies use the internet to activate and mobilize for change and to disseminate information, conduct transactions and engage in community building and collaboration (Toscano, 2016). Law enforcement agencies even utilize social media to gather intelligence and to fight crime. Nextdoor.com is a great example of a social network that is neighborhood based and allows for an exchange of information between police and concerned citizens. These collaborations can lead to arrests and often improve public safety and awareness.
The global threat of terrorism has forever changed the way law enforcement gathers intelligence. Shortly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush signed into law the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act allows the FBI (and other government agencies) to conduct surveillance of phone, email, and other electronic records (social network data) without consent. This trend in surveillance policy doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon either, and many Americans are outraged.
In 2013 Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the CIA, revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter in a surveillance program called Prism. A concerning revelation from the Snowden leaks is that the NSA gathered information from citizens that are not under suspicion of a crime at all, often times by mistake. The NSA’s surveillance was believed by Snowden to be funded by an undocumented ‘black budget’ of almost 60 billion dollars in 2013.
In October of 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry renounced the NSA for its overreaching spy tactics. John Kerry said, “In some of these cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.” It is great if the NSA has indeed scaled back their questionable surveillance practices. However, many sceptics believe that the Obama administration denounced the NSA’s activities in order to avoid what was becoming a major political maelstrom.
Social media has assisted law enforcement, but at what cost? It is as if social media adds a potential for surveillance that can be thought of as an Orwellian nightmare, especially in light of the Edward Snowden case. Vigilance and transparency are America’s best hope to keep the government from extending their reach too far.