“And you wonder,” wrote a conservative relative of mine, “why I don’t want a Facebook account.” He included a link to a news story he thought I would find of interest. I had previously described to him the benefits of social-networking sites, but I had to admit, he had a very valid point.

A social-networking site is, of course, a website like Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter. These are sites that allow people to waste time, to socialize, to network, to play games, to chat, and generally to stay connected to people in their lives and around the world. Such sites have redefined what it means to be a “friend.” Where previously a friend was someone you knew and to whom you were (presumably) close, it now means someone who has opted to receive your status updates and who probably has permission to view the pictures, videos and notes you upload and compose.

Social-networking sites are also changing the way we interact with people on a basic level, broadening our sphere of influence while diluting the nature of our associations. Many of us have “friends” on our social-networking accounts whom we barely know – people we presume to be fellow travelers, ideologically or socially, who perhaps share common interests. Some of those “friends” are coworkers, who will “unfriend” us the second we leave that place of employment. A few of our “friends” aren’t people at all, but corporate accounts or fan groups that promote a product or service we like. Some of our “friends” are celebrities, who also use social-networking sites as marketing tools.

Some of our “friends” are government agents.

The news story e-mailed to me was from Tuesday of this week. It was headlined, “Feds consider going undercover on social networks“. According to Declan McCullagh at CNET (whose work I cite often), “the Obama administration has considered sending federal police undercover on social-networking sites, including Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.” Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook, told McCullagh that “Facebook regularly works with law-enforcement agencies when they are investigating criminal activity. … We strive to respect the balance between law enforcement’s need for information and the privacy rights of our users, and as a responsible company we adhere to the letter of the law.” McCullagh also cited a previous article he wrote concerning MySpace and its reputation for ready cooperation with police.

The Associated Press was more bleak in the article it ran the same day. In “When tweets can make you a jailbird,” Richard Lardner writes that “law-enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, even going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that surfaced in a lawsuit.” In other words, the feds aren’t considering going undercover online. They’re already doing it, and they’re doing it using false identities that violate the terms of service of the sites they’re trawling.

By “feds” I’m talking about everyone from the FBI to the IRS. If you think you’re not a criminal because you’re not the type of person who propositions teenagers in online chat rooms, that’s good – but don’t forget that the IRS needs very little excuse to declare you a criminal. Government agencies with their hands in our pockets need little impetus to condemn us if that means they can take more money from us. Think about that the next time you post a picture of your new boat or your vacation home. Lardner began his piece by citing the case of Maxi Sopo, who posted on Facebook about living the good life in Mexico while he was wanted for bank fraud in Seattle. Sopo was arrested shortly after authorities tracked him through his “friends list.”

Early last year, the police state that is the U.K. provided us with ample warning of measures like this. The BBC ran a story by Dan Whitworth in which a pair of proud young police officers posed with their computer. “Hundreds of weapons” supposedly have been taken off the streets of Glasgow thanks to a program in which police officers cruise social-networking sites looking for pictures of people posing with knives. Blades of any kind are all but completely banned in the U.K., where the right to self-defense has been legislated into nonexistence.

You might wonder why, if you are not a criminal (and if you believe your tax returns are in order), this topic should concern you. The issue is that when anyone online, even in violation of a social-networking site’s terms of service, can be a government agent, we live under the all-seeing Eye of Sauron that is an invasive government. Previously in Technocracy, we discussed the dangers of acquiescing to such measures. When our government treats us all as potential criminals who must be surveilled, we no longer live in the free society our Founding Fathers envisioned. The reason the BBC story should worry us is because law-enforcement authorities there are already exceeding the boundaries of the law.

“… Superintendent Bob Hamilton,” Whitworth reports, “says [that if people photographed with knives] were posing in a public place, like on the street or a park, the law has been broken and they’ll be arrested. Even when pictures are taken in private, though, which isn’t technically breaking the law, he says the weapons are so dangerous his officers pay a visit to the people involved.”

You read that correctly. Even though the law has not been broken, these “social-networking police” believe they have the authority and obligation to harass citizens at home. This harassment is based solely on the idea that these people might break the law in the future, even though they haven’t done anything illegal.

This is not the society our Constitution protects. This is not the path we want to walk. This is not the way our government should be using technology – to monitor even our most innocent, benign and legal social activities.

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