The Division on Social Media Surveillance
Media Sonar is a software company based in London, Ontario. Recently, the company lost access to Twitter as a result of questionable marketing practices. Analysts say this controversy is just the most recent example in an ongoing battle to find a balance between public safety and basic privacy rights.

While the company maintains that its social media monitoring software and algorithms are “ideal tools for police and corporations to aggregate and filter data to improve safety and protect corporate assets,” a U.S.-led investigation uncovered marketing language that was inconsistent with Twitter’s policies.

The social media network’s policies clearly state that posts should not be mined for surveillance purposes. But emails to Media Sonar’s past clients were recovered that expressly state their software’s applications in helping law enforcement search for “criminal activity” in order to “avoid the warrant process” when targeting individuals that have come under scrutiny.

In light of the investigation’s findings, Twitter has blocked Media Sonar’s access to its application program interface (API), citing a violation for the third party’s use of data for surveillance purposes. While analysts don’t think Twitter’s stance will have a significant effect on limiting surveillance because of the number of similar products currently on the market, there’s no doubt that Media Sonar has found itself in the middle of an increasingly heated debate.

According to Tamir Israel, staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, “there’s a disconnect between what law enforcement feels it’s entitled to do with data and what citizens believe may be happening.”

One side believes that third parties are entitled to data that’s has been voluntarily shared on public platforms. They say that hashtags and geolocation tags, for example, can provide valuable investigative information for law enforcement.

This side argues that it should be the responsibility of individuals to regulate the content they make available online, and that while tech companies and public relations firms routinely mine public data without scrutiny, law enforcement agencies may have the most compelling reason to do so.

However, the opposing side argues that the algorithms commonly used by many social media monitoring companies to gather meaningful data for clients can be misleading, and that it is easy to analyze posts out of context, and without accounting for “slang, cultural norms or other factors that give a post meaning.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, “Social media monitoring is part of a pattern of unchecked surveillance. It’s yet another surveillance tool being used without transparency or accountability. And it risks targeting communities that are already vulnerable to police misconduct – especially communities of colour.”

Chris Parsons is a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizens Lab, and he offers the notion that Canadian privacy laws actually afford individuals a greater degree of protection than those in the U.S. “Just because I say something on Twitter doesn’t mean the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] can hoover it up,” says Parsons. “There has to be a reason, and they have to be able to articulate it.”

Nevertheless, the recent controversy involving Media Sonar exemplifies an ongoing struggle between the protection of privacy and the provision of public safety. And this is a batter that is still far from being resolved.

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Posted by: DSR
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Tag: Legal
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