« »

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How governments monitor the public via Twitter

Governments around the world are stepping up their requests for Twitter user account information and content removal. Year-over-year data provided by Twitter indicates a 36.28 percent increase in global governmental information requests for the first half of 2013. Moreover, in the United States alone, 1,319 user accounts were publicly targeted for information by Uncle Sam between Jan. 1 and June 30 of 2013. Of these requests, 10 percent were made without valid legal process per Twitter.

government spying

The data released by Twitter does not include all information requests. According to Reuters, “The report did not include secret information requests within the United Sates authorized under the Patriot Act...” If similar laws exist internationally, then it is possible an undisclosed amount of additional information requests exist outside of public knowledge. Such requests make it difficult for individuals to invoke their constitutional rights because they would never know if they have been potentially violated. 

In an effort to improve transparency, Twitter and other corporations are seeking to make the volume of secret requests more transparent per The Guardian. However, until those intents are met, a more complete picture of government requests will remain unknown. Currently, of the two kinds of government requests Twitter reviews, China has the largest amount of inaccessible reports, but the U.S. accounts for the largest number of publicly disclosed requests.

A similar rise in government requests is also evident in data released by Google. More specifically, in the second half of 2012, Google had close to 2,400 content removal requests compared to around 1,000 in the second half of 2010. Of the court ordered and executive requests, 39 percent have been related to defamation and 18 percent were privacy and security related. Of the remaining 43 percent, 14 percent were classified as “other” and 1 percent had no specified reason.

In some cases, the public also have the ability to request information from the government via the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974. For example, the Legal Information Institute states, “The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. § 552a) protects personal information held by the federal government by preventing unauthorized disclosures of such information. Individuals also have the right to review such information...” Whether or not disclosure requirements are trumped by other laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA is largely a matter of internal bureaucracy to decide and therefore a matter of trust.   

Government requests for information and content removal force corporations such as Twitter to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have an obligation to do their part in protecting the rights of people and government. However, they also have to be reasonable and fair in determining whether or not such requests should be granted if there is no legal basis for it. Moreover, should Twitter or any other social media firm find themselves in the cross-hairs of a whistle blower case, privacy lawsuit or other public relations calamity, their performance as for-profit entities is at risk.

Image: Asrafil/OpenClipArt; US-PD