Law enforcement shares its plan to monitor social networking sites
// Lindsay Howe

According to Facebook, the website had 845 million monthly active users at the end of December 2011. Combine that number with the 425 million Facebook mobile users and the fact that Facebook is available in 70 different languages worldwide, and you have a mega social networking giant.

While changes in Facebook’s privacy policy have stirred up controversy in the past, it was a recent announcement from law enforcement agencies that included new plans to monitor Internet usage in Canada and the U.S. that caused much discussion and controversy among citizens of both countries. Although intentions of the Canadian government differ from those of the United States, the hot topic of Internet privacy is now pushing buttons throughout North America.

Although the National Press Office of the FBI declined to answering questions regarding this announcement, documents posted online indicate that the FBI hopes build an application that will monitor social networking websites to “provide enhanced real-time situational awareness regarding any open-source breaking event, crisis, activity, or natural disaster that has occurred or in progress in the US or globally”.

The FBI also notes that they will not be monitoring these sites to target groups or specific people, but rather to search for words relating to an event or crisis such as “lockdown”, “bomb”, “suspicious package”, or “white powder”.

The documents emphasized the words “publicly available, open source, non-private data” while explaining what type of information the FBI is interested in getting its hands on, indicating an awareness that privacy activists would be concerned of the implications.

Open source data in the social media context refers to the personal information you post with the knowledge that anyone can view it; for instance, allowing your name to be searchable through the Facebook search engine.

However, despite the FBI’s reassurances, Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained to the News Scientist that it may not be enough: “Many people post to social media in the expectation that only their friends and followers are reading, which gives them the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse, but these tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the U.S.”

Concerns about citizen’s online activities aren’t just restricted to the United States, however. Recently, the Canadian government, led by the Conservative party, tabled legislation which has aroused similar concerns about invasion of privacy. The bill, entitled C-30, would require companies with an Internet presence to store information about users for the police to access.

Ivor Tossel, tech columnist for the Globe and Mail, writes, “Contrary to what you might have heard, the new bill, C-30, doesn’t invite police to monitor your every online move without a warrant. It does, however, require Internet companies – loosely defined – to cough up your name, Internet protocol address and a few other identifiers if the police ask for them, even without a warrant. This means that the police could conceivably collect a pseudonym you’ve been using to comment on websites, present it to the relevant company, and say, ‘Who is this person?’”

“By trading pseudonyms for IP addresses, then IP addresses for real names and addresses, and repeating the process, police could get a pretty clear picture of what you’ve been up to online. (The list of exactly which identifiers police can present to Internet service providers in exchange for information has yet to be nailed down),” he concludes.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has publicly endorsed the bill, stating, “Over the years, it became clear to me that Canada’s laws were falling far behind the technology used by criminals.”

Toews’ public endorsement caused serious backlash on social networking sites with public disagreement. Not only were personal threats made against Toews and his family, but a Twitter account under the username “Vikileaks” was created, publicizing all of the messy details of Toew’s divorce. Others took to the website to sign the petition against this new bill, which is currently at over 115,000 signatures.

Despite the efforts of these government officials to banish misinformation about the new powers this bill would bring, Canadian residents continue to be reluctant of a bill diminishing any kind of personal rights. In a poll conducted by Angus Reid published on Feb. 24 of this year, Canadians voiced their opinions regarding this new bill. The online survey that consisted of a representative sample of 1,011 Canadians showed that 53 per cent of us believe Bill C-30 is too intrusive, and only a mere 27 per cent of us believe the new bill is necessary because “criminal activity has evolved with technology and police need broader tools to deal with these crimes.”

However, due to the backlash against the bill, the Conservative government has taken the bill off of the fast track to official legislation status by sending it to committee, a procedure where MPs are able to make major amendments to proposed legislation.

“The government is open to having a thorough study of this at committee to make sure the bill gets done the right way [and] so that we do make those changes that will protect more people while at the same time not intruding on anyone’s privacy,” explains Andrew McDougall, a staff member in the Prime Minister’s Office.

With technology becoming vital in people’s lives more recently, this is the first major piece of legislation in Canada that has attempted to monitor Internet usage. In the United States, the recently defeated SOPA and PIPA, attempts to curb copyright infringement online, raised widespread protests, including from major websites such as Google and Wikipedia. The Internet has given Canadians access to more information and freedom of expression than any other form of technology has in the past, but it is important to remember that new technology has a tendency to coexist with new problems.

//Lindsay Howe, writer
//Graphics by Jason Jeon

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