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By: Gigaom
April 02, 2012 at 13:32 PM EDT
What happens when social surveillance goes mainstream?
The UK government considers a law that would allow for surveillance of online activity, U.S. universities admit they track what their athletes are saying on Twitter, and employers are asking for Facebook passwords. At this point, advertisers tracking us online is the least of our problems.

The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with an idea for a futuristic prison he called the “Panopticon,” a building with mirrors that would allow everyone to see what their neighbors were doing. Thanks to the growth of social tools like Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare, we now have the ingredients for a digital version of this phenomenon, and some are already using those mirrors for questionable purposes: in addition to creepy apps like “Girls Around Me,” the UK is proposing a law that would allow for monitoring of social media (as well as email and text messaging) without a warrant, U.S. universities admit that they already track what their athletes are saying — and a high-school student was recently expelled for comments he made on his personal Twitter account. At this point, advertisers tracking us online is the least of our problems.

In case you missed the furore, the “Girls Around Me” app has attracted a huge amount of negative attention for plotting the location of women on a mobile app by combining Facebook profile information and Foursquare check-in data. Foursquare has blocked the app from using its API, but the developers of the controversial service complain that they don’t do anything different than plenty of other apps such as Sonar.me — and they point out that the information they use to compile the profiles of the women they feature is from the publicly available Facebook profiles of those users.

If it’s public, can anyone track or record it for any purpose?

That’s part of what makes the issues around tracking people through Twitter, Facebook and other networks so problematic: the information is already public by default. With the kind of personally-identifiable data that the government is concerned with for its “Do Not Track” legislation, many people are unaware of what they are sharing — and with whom, and for what reason — when they click on a button or visit a website. But with Twitter or Foursquare or Facebook, users happily post status updates and check-in to places and share that information with the world. How do we determine what is an appropriate use of that information? As one observer said of Britain’s proposed legislation:

If your national or local postal service were to open and check every letter you sent in order to keep a record of whom you correspond with, would you not be outraged? What if the postal service then made all this information available to over 600 public bodies such as local councils and police forces on request?

Under the UK law, the authorities would be allowed to monitor a wide range of social media, along with email and phone calls, to detect potential terrorist threats, etc. But the functional outcome would be to allow for monitoring of virtually anyone’s activity, an idea many people are outraged by, as my colleague Bobbie Johnson notes in his coverage of the reaction to the law. The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. and other intelligence officials already do this, and they argue the same thing — that they need this power to detect security threats to the government and other institutions — and then they use it to block a trip that some harmless bar-owner has planned because of a joke he made on Twitter.

As a story in the New York Times on Monday pointed out, several U.S. universities admitted that they already employ companies to monitor their amateur athletes, whether it’s Facebook status updates or Twitter messages — one university forces any member of its sports teams to “friend” the coach on Facebook so that he or she can track their behavior. University officials argue that they need this power in order to see when athletes are saying or doing things that might cause problems for the university, but the reality is that it means everything a student does is potentially being monitored.

We can tell advertisers not to track us, but what about our employers?

And it’s not just universities and athletes: Austin Carroll, a high-school student in Indiana, was expelled for a Twitter message in which he used a common expletive — even though the school admitted that this message was sent from the student’s personal account, and didn’t involve the school’s computer network. In an even more serious case, a British university student was arrested and sent to prison in the UK because he posted a racist comment to Twitter about a popular soccer player. And Kimberly Hester, a teacher’s aide in Michigan, was recently fired because she refused to provide officials with her Facebook password, something employers have started to require (a proposed amendment that would make such conduct illegal in the U.S. failed to pass last week).

Part of the problem with all of these cases is that they blur the line between personal and professional, and they also see public vs. private as a binary question when it is anything but. As philosopher Helen Nissenbaum and others have argued, privacy online is something that depends entirely on context — so things that we might want to share with friends in a certain context (like our location) we wouldn’t want to share with strangers through an app like Girls Around Me. And similarly, messages that we post or things we do on social networks with our friends can look very different when the Department of Homeland Security prints them out at a border crossing, or when our employer or the school we attend snoops through our Facebook account.

There’s been lots of attention paid to how we stop advertisers and marketers from tracking our behavior online so that they can serve us better ads — but an even more important issue seems to be how we prevent our governments, employers and other institutions from tracking our behavior and using it in ways we never intended.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Andy Roberts and Luc Legay

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