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Social media is at an important inflection point. Either social media companies like Facebook and Twitter acknowledge that they are part of a massive, all-knowing surveillance network or they fight back against the tyranny of the intelligence state that keeps requiring more and more information about what everyone is doing and saying online. There is no middle way out of this.
Should the FBI have known about the events of January 6?
It would seem to be an obvious question, right? If the FBI really is our nation’s top domestic intelligence service, it should have known about the events of January 6. Simply checking out a few Facebook pages here and there would have alerted the FBI of what was about to go down. Simply following up on a few tweets would have given the FBI advance time to deal with this threat before it escalated into something much larger. Critics calling for more oversight and surveillance, as can be imagined, are already calling this a “massive and historic intelligence failure.”
But here’s the big problem – ingrained in our Constitutional rights as Americans is the idea that law enforcement bodies will never snoop on average Americans who are not engaged in criminal affairs. That’s something that nations like Russia or China do – not something that a free, democratic society does. And that appears to be the primary excuse that the FBI has for not anticipating the events in Washington, D.C. The FBI says that it can not monitor First Amendment-protected activities, even if that “free speech” more and more resembles “dangerous speech” or “hate speech.”
Surveillance on social media
In short, there continues to be a lot of confusion over what the FBI can (and cannot) monitor. For example, the FBI knows that it can not wiretap and eavesdrop on phone conversations. And so, it only makes sense that the FBI cannot eavesdrop on private social media conversations. Technology platforms might have changed, but a private conversation between two people is still a private conversation between two people. For example, right now, the FBI says that it cannot follow a conversation between the members of a private Facebook Group, even if members within that Group are talking about “occupying the Capitol.”
And that’s where things get really dangerous. You might have noticed that there is a big push among some legislators to label MAGA supporters and other Trump backers as dangerous “domestic terrorists.” This is not an accident. This is really a way to move the Constitutional goalposts. You see, the FBI might not be able to eavesdrop on conversations between average, law-abiding Americans, but it could eavesdrop on conversations between suspected “domestic terrorists,” as long as they can show that there is a potential national security risk.
FBI vs. Facebook
For now, the compromise solution seems to be that the FBI (and other law enforcement agencies) will attempt to monitor public-facing social media profiles and public content, but not private profiles or private content. That might be useful in terms of avoiding events like January 6, but the FBI has already complained that there is simply too much “hate speech” and “violent speech” out there to really monitor on a full-time basis. If a housewife in Iowa posts that she’d like to “hang Hillary Clinton in Gizmo” and then goes back to posting photos of her cat on Facebook – does that really require a friendly visit from the FBI to follow up on matters?
For now, the FBI can’t break into encrypted conversations or monitor accounts that are private. So your end-to-end encrypted conversations on WhatsApp are, theoretically, safe for now. That could change, however, as the push builds to label anyone opposing the main media narrative as a “terrorist.” Many law enforcement officials have already called on companies like Facebook to provide them a backdoor to snoop on conversations.
In response, the FBI is really hedging its bets right now. The agency might not feel comfortable about directly spying on innocent Americans, but that is not stopping it from using third-party proxies to spy on Americans. Case in point: the FBI has signed contracts with “threat intelligence” firms like ZeroFox and “data mining” companies like DataMinr to comb through the huge amount of social media data out there. In the future, no doubt, the FBI will also utilize sophisticated AI or machine learning technologies to comb through all the data and catch “thought criminals” before they even do anything wrong.
The future of social media
Understandably, social media companies like Facebook are in a tough spot right now. On one hand, they don’t want to be seen as being a hotbed of domestic terrorism and lunatic conspiracy theories. On the other hand, they don’t want to be seen as capitulating to the Deep State and turning America into a massive, Chinese-like surveillance state. Until now, they have been able to play both sides of the fence. But, as the heat gets turned up over the events of January 6, that may no longer be possible going forward.