Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s thoughts on shutting down social media in times of unrest, we hear this from Erik Sass at MediaPost:
Colorado’s Department of Public Safety is employing analysts at the Colorado Information Analysis Center to monitor sites like Twitter and Facebook with an eye to gleaning information about potentially disruptive events before they happen. By monitoring social media conversations in real time, the CDPS analysts hope to be able to identify emerging threats within minutes of the first discussion by online plotters — which should hopefully allow law enforcement to preempt, for example, apparently spontaneous outbursts of civil disorder.
Lance Clem, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, told Colorado journalists: “Because we know people organize this way, we’re listening,” adding, “People will describe online, or in some of the chatter that they send back and forth, indicating what they will do.” The CDPS program actually dates back to 2008, with online monitoring in the lead-up to Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Hmmm. Well, is this the same thing as Cameron’s notion that shutting down the Facebooks and Twitters is a good idea in times of civil unrest?
I don’t think so. What the CDPS is essentially doing (assuming this is the whole story) is listening in on public (or semi-public) conversations. If you and I are sitting around in a mall food court plotting a looting spree, we have no expectation of privacy if the guy at the next table has good ears and happens to be, you know, a police officer. Facebook and Twitter are like that – users can control who has access to their streams. If you aren’t one of my friends you can’t read my Facebook posts, although I have the option of making that feed available to the public. My choice. Ditto Twitter. In real life, if I don’t want something out there for everybody, you and I can talk in my living room.
If police departments didn’t monitor public chatter they’d be remiss in their duties. And if they feel the need to access private conversations, well, we have established processes for asserting probably cause and obtaining warrants, right?
None of this excuses the state from its responsibilities to promote an atmosphere free of the kinds of dynamics that breed civil disorder, of course, and anybody who has lived here as long as I have can probably tell you a story or two about how they wouldn’t necessarily trust our law enforcement to anything much more serious than guard string. So this shouldn’t be taken as a stirring endorsement of the trustworthiness of the local gendarmerie by any stretch.
But, in principle, what the CDPS appears to be up strikes me as perfectly valid.