Let me begin by acknowledging that I have an admitted distrust of government. I believe there is compelling evidence to suggest that our online activity is of far more interest to Uncle Sam than might be considered healthy. Don’t you find it quite odd that foreign countries have undertaken criminal litigation against Google over privacy issues surrounding Google’s Street View while here at home we have basically taken a “no harm-no foul” position?
If that’s not enough to get your antenna up, here’s another bit of news that most people missed. In April 2010 it was announced that every 140-character snippet you have ever posted on Twitter has been committed to the U.S. Library of Congress. The Library of Congress and our friends at Twitter have agreed to archive every single tweet since its inception on March 21, 2006, when the first tweet was launched. It is now estimated that together we send a billion tweets a week – and all of it is preserved forever.
It does not seem to me that there is such a big jump from the retention of this information to the dissection and analyzing of such data and then ultimately the utilization of what is learned.
The purpose (according to a blog post by Library of Congress communications director Matt Raymond) is to document “important tweets” as well as gather information about the way we live through the sheer masses of tweets on the site. Some find great comfort in the fact that only tweets from public Twitter feeds will be included, not those that have been set as private. Think quickly for me – are your tweets set to be private? Do you really understand that every tweet you post is intrinsically designed to be searchable? We must understand that Twitter was always designed to be searchable.
In fact, it’s essential that we recognize the possibility that at some point in the future our government, either overtly or covertly, could attempt to match this information with other user information archived in federal databases. By simply “taking the pulse of the country,” any sitting administration could easily 1) craft public policy, or 2) pander to the current tide of public sentiment in any election year.
Perhaps at this point you are thinking, this guy is seeing shadows and that perhaps writing “Violated Online” (the book) has made me a little wonky. Allow me to present another piece of evidence.
In September of this year it was reported that the Federal Reserve put out to bid an RFP (Request for Proposal) detailing its plans to monitor Facebook, Twitter and Google News. According to the document, the Fed is evaluating bids for a social media analysis system that will mine data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and web forums – beginning in December 2011. In order to “handle crisis situations” and “track the reach and spread of … messages and press releases,” the project will also identify a number of what they call “key bloggers and influencers” to target with their outreach, and presumably monitoring, efforts. This is all being done in the name of “public relations.”
Based on the parameters provided in the RFP, it appears that the Fed is not just interested in what is being said here at home but also abroad. Vendors considering the submission of a proposal are required to provide a process for monitoring multiple languages as well as international traffic and social-media content. Clearly, social media has become more than social.
Without jumping to completely Orwellian conclusion I believe that it is fair to say that many parts of our government are now attempting to gauge positive and negative sentiment by tapping into the immediate empirical data that is delivered online everyday. Most of us keep our heads down, work hard, care for our families and enjoy our newfound connectivity. Without sounding the alarm, let me suggest that we look up once in a while, take note of what is happening and keep our eyes fixed on our most basic rights. Privacy is core to all we stand for as a nation – the right to our own opinions and convictions, privacy to express those opinions while standing on the First Amendment and freedom from fear regarding that expression. Let’s commit to keeping our antennas up as we move forward into a digital unknown. Regret after the fact does little to secure our future privacy.
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Steve Wyer is CEO of Reputation Advocate and the author of “Violated Online: How Online Slander Can Destroy Your Life & What You Must Do to Protect Yourself.”