Surveillance Facebook-Style: It’s Your Party and You Can Cry If You Want To

668925_birthday_cakeThe U.K.’s Register reports that British police stormed a man’s birthday barbeque party because his invite to 15 Facebook friends advertised an “all night party.”  Before the party could really begin, police showed up in four cars, a riot van, and a helicopter, ordering the birthday boy to shut the party down or face arrest.  With an appropriate amount of humor, Andrew Poole, the birthday trouble-maker, explained: “What the police did was come in and stop 15 people eating hamburgers.”  What would possess the Facebook Precinct to bother here?  Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 grants police powers to remove individuals attending or preparing for a “rave,” defined as playing amplified music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

This incident demonstrates the perils of a society that monitors and mines Facebook communications.  The costs to liberty include blows to free expression and association.  Brits will surely think twice about wall messages and “what I am doing now” missives that include talk of parties and other activities subject to misinterpretation.  The costs to society: the misdirection of police from real threats to society and wasted resources spent breaking up a birthday bash (the helicopter time apparently cost 200 pounds and tack on the police efforts, including any investigation they conducted and time at the party, and gas for the four cars and van).  So with Facebook surveillance the British may get less liberty and less security.

Commentators on the Register story noted their relief at living in the United States.  They suggested that law enforcement and security officials would never be so foolish as to monitor Facebook traffic.  Think again.  The NSA’s Advanced Research Development Activity (ARDA) has funded research on the “Semantic Analytics on Social Networks: Experiences in Addressing the Problem of Conflict of Interest Detection,” which discusses how  intelligence about people can be extracted from social networks.  ARDA’s role is to spend NSA money on research that can “solve some of the most critical problems facing the U.S. intelligence community.”  ARDA’s function is to make sense of the massive amount of data that the NSA collects.

Should Americans be worried about intelligence profiling a la Facebook?  Many might think that the use of privacy settings on social networking sites would obviate the problem.  First, studies suggest that most social networking site users use the default privacy settings, which are often the least privacy protecting and may reveal much of a user’s musings.  Second, this assumption presumes that third party sites will not turn over social networking data, which they own, to the government, either for a pretty price or in the face of a subpoena or warrant.  This assumption may be faulty.  So what is all of the fuss?  Automated intelligence profiling has obvious costs, such as the ones posed by the birthday party bust.  It also has less apparent ones, such as mining misleading social networking data with other not-so reliable private and public database date and, poof, people end up on government watchlists.

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2 Responses

  1. Frank Pasquale says:

    This sounds like Minority Report, where one of the pre-cogs had a bad dream about the video “Fight for your right to party.”

    What strikes me as particularly self-defeating here is that, as soon as word of the surveillance is out, any terror group with a clue is going to get off the social network. So who’s left? The party-throwers.

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    According to the BBC story linked to in the article, the police were informed about the event because people in the neighborhhod feared it was going to be an illegal rave: “Locals feared a rave was to take place at Sowton, near Exeter, on Saturday and called the police, who closed the event down.” I’m not sure, but this does not seem to be a case of the police being on facebook looking for parties to shut down (or anything like high-tech NSA stuff).