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community input in digital surveillance

May 5, 2017

Topic: Engagement Theory, Research

Shrinking privacy: social media regulation calls for community input

Is government monitoring of social media eroding privacy? In the recently published ‘Social Media and Government Surveillance: The Case for Better Privacy Protections for Our Newest Public Space’, Jeramie D. Scott calls for community input in regulating use of digital surveillance technology. 

Scott makes a case for the public review of surveillance policy, identifying its chilling effect on free speech as a threat to democracy. He reveals the dangers of unrestricted state access to digital information. While a ‘legal vacuum’ around privacy in digital public space leaves citizens unprotected and gives authorities a free hand, companies who provide the surveillance technologies are shrouded in layers of secrecy. The author recommends community input on the use of surveillance technology, and new federal regulations to improve transparency and accountability. To illustrate, he refers to the Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance under consideration in Oakland, California.

Privacy in public, writes Scott, is important for democracy, describing how social media makes personal – and political – information available for analysis. In the absence of legal protection on digital privacy, social justice movements have become the subjects of ‘virtual stakeouts’ by security agencies, with conversations in the Black Lives Matter movement being monitored by local and federal law enforcement authorities. As per a Pew study cited, 34% of people surveyed admitted that they took steps to protect their digital information from the government, altering social media usage, language, and privacy settings. An expanded definition of privacy, he argues, is necessary to defend social media users from the indiscriminate analysis of their communications being used to make assumptions about them.        

Oakland’s Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance recognizes social media monitoring as ‘technology which aggregates publicly available information’ – and sees the need for community-oriented review. Suggesting that public input be ‘given significant weight’, the Ordinance advises that legal arrangements for accountability should be in place before new monitoring technology is put to use. Scott proposes that new federal regulation should acknowledge social media monitoring as a search under US law, thereby requiring a warrant. He argues that public consultation will let communities affected by surveillance address their privacy concerns. In addition, legal frameworks for transparency may stop technology from growing past the purpose for which it was deployed.

Jeramie D.Scott is National Security Counsel, Privacy Coalition Coordinator and Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Washington, DC.

Header photo: nolifebeforecoffee/Flickr/cc