Let's face it: the world is more Orwellian than it used to be. With technological innovations in the past ten years alone--social media, smartphones, widespread Wi-Fi--we're able to communicate more often, more publicly and more traceably than ever before, and the notion of the government watching what we're saying scares the heck out of a lot of people. The New York Federal Reserve Bank is the latest organization to express interests in monitoring social media. This week, Fast Company confirmed the Fed's plans to hire a firm to conduct "sentiment analysis" on social networks around the world, but despite what you might read on conspiracy theory blogs, it's not as Big Brother-ish as it sounds.
In September, a document leaked online and posted in full below revealing details of how the Fed wants to keep a virtual finger on the public's pulse. In requesting proposals for a "Sentiment Analysis and Social Media Monitoring Solution," the Fed wants to hire a company that can "monitor billions of conversations," "handle crisis situations" as well as "identify and reach out to key bloggers and influencers." The monitoring isn't meant help guide the Fed's policy decisions but rather improve its public relations--and if you've been watching the GOP debates or paying attention to Occupy Wall Street protests, you'll know that the Fed is elbow deep in bad press lately. A representative from the Fed told Fast Company of their plan, "The reason for contemplating such an effort is to get a better sense of the relevant concerns and discussions that are taking place in the public domain in order to improve our communications and engagement with the public."
Compared to similar government efforts, the Fed's new plan sounds pretty mild, but skeptics have balked at the organization's justification nevertheless. The anonymous voice behind the Zero Hedge blog insists that "the Fed will next focus on telephone conversations, and finally will simply bug each and every otherwise 'private' location in the world." In fact, the Fed is just the latest government-affiliated group to tap into social networks. The Pentagon announced plans in August to harness the fire hose of data being communicated over social networks into useful intelligence, and last October, a lawsuit related to social media monitoring led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed how the Department of Homeland Security has kept a close eye on everything from Facebook to Twitter to Daily Kos for years. The EFF says "that leading up to President Obama's January 2009 inauguration, DHS established a Social Networking Monitoring Center (SNMC) to monitor social networking sites for 'items of interest.'" The Fed's hope to use social media as a PR crutch sounds relatively mild in comparison. After all, JetBlue's been doing this sort of thing for ages.
For those wary of the government's surveillance efforts, the burgeoning field of social media monitoring pales in comparison to how the government is able to tap into more traditional internet channels like email. This week, The Wall Street Journal reports that the government "obtained a controversial type of secret court order to force Google Inc. and small Internet provider Sonic.net Inc. to turn over information from the email accounts of WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum." This sort of thing happens relatively often. In the second half of 2010 alone, the government sent 4,601 such requests to Google, who complied 94 percent of the time. What's more unsettling is the extent to which the law is outdated when it comes to protecting citizens' private data. The Journal explains:
Passed in 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is older than the World Wide Web, which was dreamed up in 1989. A coalition of technology companies--including Google, Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Corp.--is lobbying Congress to update the law to require search warrants in more digital investigations. …
Law enforcement uses the law to obtain some emails, cellphone-location records and other digital documents without getting a search warrant or showing probable cause that a crime has been committed. Instead the law sets a lower bar: The government must show only "reasonable grounds" that the records would be "relevant and material" to an investigation.
As a result, it can be easier for law-enforcement officers to see a person's email information than it is to see their postal mail.
Meanwhile, social media data is already public. The government isn't necessarily hacking into accounts and checking out your private Facebook photos or reading your password-protected blog. Precedent shows, however, that when authorities want access to your private data, the law makes it pretty easy for them to get it.