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Are social media tracking bots dangerous to user privacy?

Social media use is on the rise, and authorities are becoming better at keeping track of conversations to fight crime. But are bots the best tools for keeping track of threats to safety and security, or do they invade user privacy?


Social media sites are among today’s top destinations both on mobile and desktop devices. This comes with an increase in the need for authorities to monitor conversations in the aim of improving their tracking of potential illicit activities. This has fueled the privacy vs. security debate. One does not even have to consider restrictive governments like in China, Vietnam or Singapore (home base to VR-Zone) to find censorship and filtering. In the U.S., the National Security Agency had been widely criticized because of its activities that involve eavesdropping on the communications and social networks of American and foreign nationals.

On a smaller scale, however, authorities may be listening in on user conversations, especially those that happen on public or even friend-restricted networks. Even tweets or Facebook posts done in jest or sarcasm could sometimes merit prosecution if the police take the postings too seriously. Case in point: NBC News cites instances in which a teenager was jailed for joking about a school shooting, marking the social media postings as a terrorist threat.

However, social media monitoring has led to positive acts on the part of law enforcement, such as putting a stop to a gun smuggling operation. The question here is to what extent should authorities be able to monitor social media use within their jurisdictions, and whether these would not be violating privacy in the first place.

One of the tools growing in popularity with law enforcement agencies and even school administrators is BlueJay, which promises full access to the Twitter firehose in order to keep track of relevant conversations. BlueJay lets its users target tweets based on location — called “geo listening” — and some semantics, such as hashtags and keywords. There is question, however, on whether bots can provide appropriate judgement with regard to separating what are actual threats from statements uttered in jest or sarcasm.

On Ars Technica, Nate Anderson argues that tools like BlueJay can be a creepy means by which law enforcement (or other authorities like school administrators, employers or even community leaders) can spy on their constituents.

“Used less than well, it can be a bit creepy, sort of on par with having a kid’s uncle listen outside her bedroom during a slumber party. And used badly, it can make a nice tool for keeping an eye on critics/dissenters,” he writes.

It can also be a way for employers to keep tabs on their workers, which can be particularly troublesome for employees who are fond of complaining about their bosses or the workplace.

This begs the question of course, whether people are practicing discretion with online postings. If you’re posting publicly, then “you should expect the world to read it,” advises Andy Sellars, a lawyer for the Digital Media Law Project. “And you should expect that world to include law enforcement.”

Are tools like BlueJay a threat to user privacy? Or should social media users be more careful with sharing information online?

Source: NBC News

J. Angelo Racoma
J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo develops business case studies for Microsoft enterprise applications and services. He is also co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing team.

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