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Social Media Firms Hand Reams of Data on Law-Abiding Citizens to Law Enforcement

Words by Nithin Coca
Leadership & Transparency
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This week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) slammed America's top three social networks – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – for willingly providing law enforcement officials with special access to user data, a blatant violation of users' privacy. This news is the latest in a long trend of top social networks shifting away from being open communications platforms and turning into something sinister.

The three networks opened access to huge amounts of user data for Geofeedia, a social media product used widely by law enforcement to monitor activists and protests. This included, but was not limited to: what people posted, where they posted from, and their friends lists.

“This is more than just a violation of our privacy and freedom of speech; this is compliance with a system that tacitly condones institutional racism and surveillance of communities of color — we won’t stand for that,” said Nicole Carty, senior campaigner at SumOfUs, in a press statement.

This is merely the latest in what’s becoming more and more clear: The big social networks and Internet companies are catering not to users like us, but to governments and advertisers. Facebook has acceded to police demands to cut off feeds, and takes down videos with little explanation. Yahoo was caught giving governments access to activists' emails. We live in a world of information, and, today, little of that information is under our control.

Facebook – the world’s largest social network by a wide, wide gap – might be the scariest of them all. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is now pulling out all the stops to try to gain access to the world’s largest Internet market: China, the same country Google left in 2010. As the Technology Review reported on Tuesday, it might be working.

"Facebook’s founder ... has signaled to Beijing that he’s willing to do what it takes to get into the country. People who know the company well think it will happen. It’s not an if, it’s a when,” Tim Sparapani principal at SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm, told the Technology Review.

Do whatever it takes in China means giving far too much to a repressive regime – one that censors content on local social media networks Weibo and WeChat regularly, and even arrests netizens for sharing something as simple as the photo of the Dalai Lama. Would Facebook allow China to access user data outside of the country? Considering Zuckerberg’s drive for Web domination, nothing is outside of the realm of possibility.

At least the ACLU report resulted in real change. Instagram cut of Geofeedia’s access, and Twitter plans to reign in what it shares as well. It shows the networks will listen when users make demands. Unfortunately, we have no idea how many other companies, governments or hackers are using data from social networks to spy on us.

Us users are partly to blame as well. We actually give these companies wide-ranging access to our data in the terms of service, and so-called "privacy policies" that few of us read. Despite the growing evidence that these companies are using our data to profit off of us, we still keep logging into Facebook and Tweeting daily. Is it such a surprise that they sell our data to nefarious companies like Geofeedia?

Looking back, it’s quite sad. Remember when social media was supposed to be a harbinger of democracy and freedom of expression around the world? When Twitter and Facebook were channels of communication during the Arab Spring (albeit overblown)? Unfortunately, the digital world we live in now becomes more and more closed, as the power of these for-profit, advertising-driven networks grows. We need a new social media platform, one that puts people, communication and privacy before profit. Otherwise, the dream of what the Web could accomplish for the world could be lost forever.

Image credit: C Osett via Flickr

Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca