Omniveillance Redux and Social Networking as “the de facto infrastructure of surveillance”

October 27th, 2013

As we freely share more and more information about ourselves with key social networking intermediaries, we set the stage for the government developing more complete pictures of who we are. The very forces that make social media fun make it a ripe target for governmental surveillance.

The Times has a probing piece of this dynamic:

The Internet industry, having nudged consumers to share heaps of information about themselves, has built a trove of personal data for government agencies to mine — erecting, perhaps unintentionally, what Alessandro Acquisti, a Carnegie Mellon University behavioral economist, calls “the de facto infrastructure of surveillance.”

Unsurprisingly, the companies that target our online behavior seek to distinguish the two.

There is a difference, of course, between government surveillance and commercial tracking, as Silicon Valley has been quick to point out. A coalition of technology industry associations appealed to the Obama administration in August not to confuse government surveillance with the tracking of users’ data for advertising purposes. “Discussions about national security must be kept separate from conversations about commercial privacy issues, as the policy issues in these two areas are distinct,” the coalition wrote in a letter to the White House.

The core distinction, industry executives say, is that Web companies do not have the power to prosecute anyone, as law enforcement agencies do.

But wait! Anything Facebook has, the NSA has also.

But hang on, critics say. Commercial data collection has its own dangers. As is widely known by now, posts on Twitter or Facebook can affect college admissions or prospects for employment. And the very collection of data by the likes of Facebook, Microsoft and Verizon creates a vast reservoir of information that intelligence agencies can tap into.

In any event, the lines between the two sets of data, these critics say, are blurring. “I’m not saying evil corporations are doing this intentionally,” Mr. Acquisti said. “At the same time, their technologies have created this infrastructure, which makes universal surveillance possible.”

And not just information the NSA obtains through court process. What about media that is publicly available? Think of the “tapestry” created from social media of the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was our Instagram photos and vines that allowed the police to recreate the entire environ of the crime. See also the op-ed I authored with Lisa Tucker McElory.

This phenomenon is what I call Omniveillance Redux. The government doesn’t need to do that much to surveil us when we share so much of our own information.