Automated tools are being used to mass-surveillance social media accounts. This is getting out of control. According to Freedom on the Net’s report, nine out of ten internet users are being monitored online. This is done now by automated systems, where it was possible to do so with armies of analysts. AI and pattern analytics allow billions of accounts worldwide to be monitored in real-time. The report focuses on the darkest parts of the internet, including China, Russia, South East Asia, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. However, it also mentions examples of monitoring in Europe and the U.S., as well as the creation of commercial tools using western government money, which then ends up in the hands questionable regimes.
When it comes to monitoring social media, online messaging and data sharing, there is a delicate balance. This debate has been the topic of headline news for months. We look to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to eradicate hate and violence and to police an enormous amount of data. Passive monitoring–censorship, is linked to more active monitoring where individuals are highlighted, their relationships and networks probed, threads pulled. The imperatives of law enforcement agencies that are charged with fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, kid abuse, money laundering, and terrorism-related crimes, is one balancing act. Another balance act concerns the powers granted to agencies under sensible legal restrictions, and those same tools being used for population control or political suppression.
Although the Cambridge Analytica scandal has exposed the truth about manipulation and data security on social media platforms, the root of the problem is in the platforms–the possibility for intelligence to be extracted from otherwise innocuous information. Many of these tools are brand new and leverage AI and pattern analysis to map relationships between people, to use natural language processing and “assign meaning or attitudes to social media posts”, and to mine data to find information about “past and future locations.” Probably.
According to the report, 89% of internet users around the globe are being monitored. This is approximately 3 billion people. China is leading the charge in mass population monitoring and technology used to control population growth, as you would expect. The report covers 65 countries, but 39 other countries are included that “have implemented advanced social media surveillance programmes.”
Millions of people know that we are not as unique or different as we think. With enough data, it is possible to monitor and manipulate our behavior. We all subscribe to these platforms by choice. They can keep an eye on us and implement mass population control. Freedom on the Net warns that mass surveillance was once the exclusive domain of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. However, it has now spread to many countries, including major authoritarian powers and smaller, less developed states that still hope to track dissidents or persecuted minority.
This interplay between social media, government action and government action was highlighted in Hong Kong and Russia. We have seen China’s national programs to evaluate the population and assign citizen scoring. Russia’s sovereign internet program to monitor its citizens and their use of social media has been seen. We have also seen the U.S. use social media to screen for potential threats to immigration.
Nearly everyone has now inadvertently opted in to a data mine that is now widely accessible. While the platforms claim that they protect data from interference and monitoring, most of the data can be accessed commercially. Mass scraping tools can easily mine all these sources even with some social engineering. Freedom on the Net states that even though it is not about individuals who interact with these services, the information collected, generated and inferred about them has tremendous value, not only for advertisers but also for law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies.
According to the report, China’s quasi-commercial organisations have created platforms that allow them to monitor hundreds of millions of people. We know some of this because of the loose security controls surrounding these data repositories. This has led to a few breaches. It’s not just China. Data mining tools in the United States have been created, often with venture funding from the government, and used to aid investigations into serious crimes. The report warns that law enforcement agencies and other federal, state and local agencies are using these tools to monitor activists and protestors and screen travelers for political views.
Although North America and Western Europe are highlighted green in the report’s interactive map, mass data surveillance is increasing in both the U.S. to monitor their visitors and in the U.K to “monitor almost 9,000 activists across the political spectrum–many with no criminal history–using geolocation tracking and sentiment analysis using data scraped from Facebook and Twitter.
When it comes to data surveillance reports, there is always room for improvement. We value privacy, but also expect safety and security as consumers of these online services. It is about deciding where the line should be drawn. This involves assessing where public consent begins and ends, as well as the tradeoffs we are willing make. This same debate has been witnessed over encryption of end-to-end messages and government plans to open backdoors on an “as necessary” basis. These arguments are the same for messaging as they are for monitoring social media. What is the limit of technology access?
This report contains a disturbing theme that should concern us all. A pincer movement is taking place. All countries around the globe can access government surveillance tech from China as well as commercial versions from the U.S. and Europe. It is becoming increasingly difficult to control this. Parallel, because we all use the same social networking platforms in a similar way, there is an alarmingly even playing field. “Social media is tilting dangerously towards illiberalism, exposing citizens a unprecedented crackdown on fundamental freedoms–a result, global internet freedom fell for the ninth consecutive season in 2019.