Social Media Under Extensive Monitoring by UK Government

The United Kingdom's civil liberties advocate Big Brother Watch has released an exhaustive new document examining the UK government's surveillance practices on social media.

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The document, named “Ministry of Truth,” provides a deep dive into five covert units within the UK government: the Rapid Response Unit, the Counter Disinformation Unit, the Government Information Cell, the Intelligence and Communications Unit, and the 77th Brigade, a component of the British Army.

Despite these units having different objectives and roles, they all share one common practice: utilizing social media to acquire detailed information about individuals, including journalists and politicians, and manipulating public opinion.

The Motivation Behind UK Authorities' Social Media Surveillance

The "Ministry of Truth" report probes into the operations of five units engaged in social media surveillance, offering examples of their actions. The information is derived from freedom of information requests and other transparency tools.

In a notable revelation, a whistleblower gave Big Brother Watch firsthand accounts regarding the British Army’s 77th Brigade, stating: “the domestic monitoring of citizens online seemed less about addressing public apprehensions and more about finding ways to ensure compliance with contentious government policies.” The report details the privacy invasion that results from these activities:

Such entities like the [Counter Disinformation Unit] are instructed to “identify misinformation and work with social media firms to remove it” (as stated by a minister), substantial surveillance of citizens’ online activities becomes inevitable. As Big Brother Watch research has discovered, this includes monitoring the expression of prominent individuals, including democratically elected politicians, journalists and human rights activists, in discussions about public policy.

The lack of information about the functions of these government units only leads to assumptions about the scope and nature of the surveillance being conducted. What is evident is that when this surveillance is not confined, proportionate, or legally defined, it is likely to be a considerable violation of the right to privacy.

This is not about UK government agencies covertly extracting information about citizens. All the activities highlighted in the Big Brother Watch report rely on public posts made on mainstream social media platforms. These are accessible to everyone by default. The issue arises when UK government units exploit this easy access to carry out targeted surveillance on individuals without any indications of them being involved in illicit activities.

Tech Companies to Facilitate Surveillance for Research Purposes

A different recent report, authored by the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), highlights an associated privacy threat stemming from personal information contained in social media posts. This surpasses simple data mining of public posts and stems from recent initiatives that give researchers access to comprehensive data to gain insights into social media dynamics and their impact on individuals, societal groups, and society as a whole. The EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) serves as a prime example of this concept. Under Article 40 of the DSA, companies designated as “very large online platforms” or “very large online search engines” are obliged to provide duly vetted researchers with data access, subject to certain conditions. The CDT report titled “Defending Data: Privacy Protection, Independent Researchers, and Access to Social Media Data in the US and EU” discusses a complicating factor: while the DSA came into effect in November 2022, many details remain vague. These unresolved details will be addressed using “delegated acts” – additional directives issued by the European Commission. One crucial unanswered question pertains to how the new right to access social media data aligns with the EU’s overarching General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is because many social media posts contain personal information that falls under the purview of the GDPR. The CDT also notes other unresolved issues:

It is yet to be determined whether specific data can be categorically excluded from independent researchers' access, or what mechanisms very large online platforms might be required to use to facilitate data access for researchers. The question of whether researchers outside the EU can be classified as "vetted researchers" or whether data generated by or about users outside the EU can be supplied to researchers also remains uncertain.

Potential for Protecting Social Data Remains

In the United States, initiatives to provide independent researchers with access to social media data repositories aren't as advanced. Nevertheless, the CDT points out several bills under consideration that could accomplish this, such as the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA), the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act (DSOSA), the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), and the Social Media Disclosure and Transparency of Advertisements (DATA) Act. The primary focus of the CDT report is:

the possibility that law enforcement agencies could exploit tools made available to the general public or openly register as researchers to access these mechanisms, or align themselves with researchers as part of consortia with access to platform data.

The report evaluates different models for social media data access, options concerning user notification or consent for data sharing, their legal implications, and the impact on privacy. The report ends with several policy recommendations for both the US and EU, aimed at safeguarding the privacy of social media users and preventing authorities from misusing the new access rights intended for researchers, not for law enforcement.

These recommendations are particularly crucial as they come at a time when the pertinent laws are still being detailed. It is hoped that legislators will heed these recommendations and incorporate additional privacy safeguards that organizations like the CDT and others are advocating.

The drafting phase of the relevant laws provides an excellent opportunity to incorporate these proposed protections into legislation. It remains to be seen whether these considerations will be taken into account during the legislative process.

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