An Explicit Link Between PRISM and Social Media Intelligence

Writing at Wired UK, Paul Wright has some concerns about the use of social media monitoring in law enforcement: Meet Prism's little brother: Socmint. I'll quote a couple of sections, but you need to read the whole piece; its tone is at least as important as its content.

For the past two years a secretive unit in the Metropolitan Police has been developing the tools for blanket surveillance of the public's social media conversations,

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a staff of 17 officers in the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU) has been scanning the public's tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook profiles, and anything else UK citizens post in the public online sphere.

The intelligence gathering technique—sometimes known as Social Media Intelligence or Socmint—has been used in conjunction with an alarming array of sophisticated analytical tools. [emphasis added]

Wright has a fairly alarmist—but accurate—take on something that's obvious to anyone who thinks about it: outside of a few protected spaces, what we do in social media is public, and government security and law enforcement agencies are using that data. It's the details of what they do with it that will make some people uncomfortable.

The problem is that public is gaining new depth of meaning as information moves online, and we haven't sorted the implications.

Nothing changes, but everything's changed
The new public information is persistent, searchable, and rich with analytic potential. I wrote about this last year (Why Government Monitoring Is Creepy), and it's still where I think we need to start. People seem to be expecting a sort of semi-privacy online, but the technology doesn't have that distinction. Data is either public or private, and the private space is shrinking.

The "alarming array" of tools refers to all the interesting stuff we've been talking about doing with social media data for years: text analytics, social network analysis, geospatial analysis… For business applications, we've mostly talked about analysis on aggregate data, but if you apply the lens toward profiling individuals and don't care about being intrusive, you can start to justify the concerns.

But several privacy groups and think tanks—including Big Brother Watch, Demos and Privacy International—have voiced concerns that the Met's use of Socmint lacks the proper legislative oversight to prevent abuses occurring.

It's worth noting that Wright's piece is specifically about law enforcement use of social media data, and he points to others who are concerned about overreach by law enforcement agencies. Here are the organizations mentioned, along with links to some of their relevant work:

This is the social data industry's PRISM problem: the risk that the revelations of intelligence agency practices will raise broader privacy concerns that include the business use of public social media data. They're different issues, but the interest sparked by the NSA disclosures has people thinking about privacy.

In this case, Wired makes the connection explicit with their headline, calling social media intelligence "Prism's little brother." As Wright demonstrates in his article, open-source social media monitoring raises issues, too.

Legitimate questions, too
There's more going on here than a question of perception. If invasion of online privacy gains traction as an issue, the important distinction between public and private data is only part of the issue. If we limit the topic to public data, the question becomes, what are the limits to the use of public data?

An important part of answering that question will depend on understanding why there should be limits, which goes to what is being done with the data. It's going to be worth separating the concepts of accessing the data and using it. What you do in your analysis may be even more sensitive than the data you base it on.

People are sharing more than they realize, and analysts can do more with that data than people think. As monitoring becomes pattern detection becomes predictive modeling, it becomes more likely to make people uncomfortable. Last year's pregnant daughter is this year's precrime is next year's thoughtcrime, or so the thinking goes.

Will concerns like this lead to new restrictions by governments or the companies who control the data? Will people cut back on their public sharing? Or will these concerns fade when the next topic takes the stage (squirrel!)?

What are the constraints?
The existing limits on social media monitoring and analysis boil down to this: If it is technically possible, not illegal, and potentially useful, do it (depending on your affiliations, professional ethical standards may also apply). What we're seeing is that the unrestricted use of social data has the potential to make people uncomfortable, which could have consequences for those who would use the data.

It's worth thinking about the constraints on using social data, which involves more than the ethics question. I have some thoughts, which I'll share later.

About Nathan Gilliatt

  • ng.jpg
  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
  • Principal, Social Target
  • Profile
  • Highlights from the archive


Monthly Archives