Let’s be honest, nothing that anybody does online is truly private. At its core, data privacy is a façade. We’re kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise.
Yet, nothing gets civil-liberties organizations and technology companies alike to shake their collective fist in the air more than the debate over government surveillance in the social media context. Often, the very same companies that are monetizing the most personal data are the ones fighting alongside those civil-liberties groups, as if amassing vast oceans of personal data for sales and marketing purposes is any less invasive or morally acceptable than the government gathering intelligence for the purposes of national security.
The long-running battle between the private and public sector over data privacy rights has taken another interesting turn. In July, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it is soliciting proposals from vendors for a contract “to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests” through acquiring data from social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the agency stated in its request for proposals.
“The use of social-media platforms by terrorist groups, domestic threats, foreign-intelligence services, and criminal organizations to further their illegal activity creates a demonstrated need for tools to properly identify the activity and react appropriately,” the FBI said. “Consequently, the FBI needs near real-time access to a full range of social media exchanges in order to obtain the most current information available in furtherance of its law enforcement and intelligence missions.” The deadline for bids is Aug. 27.
Some media outlets, in reporting this news, have focused on the FBI’s plans as conflicting with the data privacy policies and compliance obligations of social media platforms. Facebook and Instagram’s policy, for example, explicitly states developers cannot “use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance.” Twitter’s policy, too, explicitly prohibits the use of its data “by any entity for surveillance purposes, or in any other way that would be inconsistent with our users’ reasonable expectations of privacy. Period.”
Privacy policies aside, it’s fair to say none of these companies condone acts of terrorism or other forms of violence. In fact, social media companies, like Facebook, have privacy leaders who focus exclusively on countering abuse by terrorists and hate groups online. Rather than having data privacy compliance and national security in opposition, with one coming at the expense of the other, it’s time to move the needle forward and focus the conversation, instead, on where there are opportunities to collaborate.
Brian Fishman, counter-terrorism policy director at Facebook, published one of the most comprehensive discussion papers on the subject to date. In that paper, he presents several opportunities for collaboration, including Internet technology companies being more transparent about their own efforts to counter terrorism and hate groups; sharing content between and among companies that may point to potentially concerning content; and policymakers tailoring their analysis and recommendations to key decision makers within technology companies and being more attuned to the challenges they face.
Whatever the solutions might be, to focus the conversation on data privacy being strictly a compliance issue versus a national security issue—a corporate surveillance versus government surveillance issue—would be short-sighted. To truly proactively identify and monitor potential threats that manifest on social media demands greater collaboration among the corporate sector, government, and academia, with the assistance and input of privacy experts and policymakers alike. Any effort short of that isn’t looking at the bigger picture and may even be counterproductive.