Yes Virginia, Big Brother is following you on Twitter

If you’re concerned about the rise of the “surveillance society,” in which the authorities use cameras and other means to snoop on your activities, the past week or so has probably added even more fuel to that fire. The British intelligence service is doing its best to crack encrypted BlackBerry instant messages (s rimm) to identify rioters — and the police are using facial recognition to do the same — while some departments are setting up social-media observation units to track Twitter and Facebook, and others are using algorithms to try to predict where crimes will occur. In a world where our online activities are increasingly public, the bottom line is that governments have even more ability to observe our behavior, whether we like it or not.

Crawling through Facebook pages and Twitter feeds looking for dissidents is something that we’ve come to associate with repressive and totalitarian regimes like Egypt’s former dictatorship or the Chinese government, both of which have reportedly used Facebook’s “real name” policy — along with other methods such as geo-targeting — to identify disruptive elements via social media. Western governments have also proven to be interested in these kinds of technologies, however, particularly in the wake of events such as the recent riots in London, which have led the British prime minister to discuss potentially banning certain people from using social networks.

As I noted in a recent post, it’s not just Britain’s PM who is interested in taking these kinds of steps. A prominent British MP said shutting down social networks would be no different than closing a road during an emergency, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority actually shut down cellular networks in some of its stations in advance of a protest because it was afraid demonstrators would use cellphones to organize — a controversial move that the FCC is reportedly looking into.

Block them, or use them for surveillance?

But shutting down or blocking access to social media and social networks is one thing; the flip side of that is using these networks and tools to snoop on users who the police or other agencies believe need to be surveilled. There are brute-force attempts such as MI5’s plan to try to crack the encryption used by Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger service, which was allegedly used by some London rioters to coordinate their activities, and then there are the various attempts at using facial-recognition software to identify rioters who posted photos to Facebook or elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, a civilian volunteer effort to do something similar using publicly available software and a Facebook app was recently abandoned, because the founders said the software’s ability to identify people was simply not good enough — raising the prospect of potential “false positives,” which could lead to innocent people being targeted by the authorities. And a number of observers have noted that even London’s much-criticized network of closed-circuit security cameras, which led some to call Britain the first modern “surveillance society,” didn’t have much effect on stopping or even quelling the recent riots.

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department has launched an official social-media monitoring branch, whose job it will be to track Twitter and Facebook for information that might lead to charges involving everything from disturbing the peace to gang violence (hopefully this will result in more serious charges than the recent arrest by British police of a man who planned a water-pistol fight using Facebook).

Could social media be used to predict crime?

In another recent effort that reminded some of the movie Minority Report, the Santa Cruz police department is experimenting with an algorithm-driven program that tries to identify where crimes might occur based on patterns from past arrests in the city. While the software doesn’t take into account posts from Twitter or Facebook, it’s easy to see how it could — in the same way that some people are trying to predict the movement of stocks and markets based on what people are posting to Twitter.

Although some (including me) have argued that the crackdown on social media being considered by Britain is as wrongheaded as a shutdown of communications services such as cellphones, there is one big difference between telephone conversations and Twitter or Facebook: namely, that one is private and the others are effectively public. That means while the police or the federal authorities would — in most cases, at least — have to get a warrant of some kind to tap your phone or eavesdrop on your computer, they can follow you on Twitter whenever they wish, and create profiles based on your Facebook activity or any other social-networking platform.

Doing this may well be beyond the abilities of most police forces, who are already stretched in dealing with the existing crimes they already know about — but it is certainly not beyond the abilities of MI5 or Scotland Yard or other Western intelligence services, many of whom are already using sophisticated data-collection methods to track suspicious activity on a number of communications networks including the Internet. How long until social media becomes part of that, if it isn’t already?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jim Sher and Jennie Moo