Social Media Posts Can Get You Arrested, Now in the U.S.
The U.S. police are using social media to find people involved in looting and violence, as well as those who were going to get involved and posted about it. According to Politico, there are several currently unfolding cases, in which the police acted on hints taken from Facebook.
In one of the cases, in Arizona, the defendant reportedly created a private Facebook chat group where he was calling people to riot and loot a local pharmacy. Using an undercover account, the police infiltrated the group and obtained screenshots of the messages there, some of which suggested that the defendant was going to burn down the county courthouse.
Other cases allegedly involve defendants who filmed themselves looting, instructing on making and using Molotov cocktails and encouraging others to engage in violent behavior. One of the defendants posted about his plans to loot a place on Facebook, time and location included. He later filmed himself carrying allegedly stolen goods, thus fulfilling the plan.
While there was no “unlawful overreach” reported on the part of federal authorities, civil liberties advocates are concerned by the methods law enforcement uses to identify suspects. Primarily, social media surveillance may deter people from voicing their opinions freely, especially on sensitive or private topics.
“Research shows that when people know that what they are saying is being watched, they feel more inhibited. They don’t feel as free to share unpopular or radical viewpoints, and they also don’t feel as free to speak generally or to share more private thoughts,” said Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
Similarly, EFF’s Karen Gullo said that scrutiny by law enforcement will impede free speech and association both for users being monitored and those they communicate.
“Social media monitoring is a longstanding police practice by police surveilling dissident movements. Unless carefully restricted, this monitoring can undermine our First Amendment rights to associate, assemble, and protest, and our Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures,” she explained.
According to an anonymous law enforcement official who talked to Politico, not using public social media posts as evidence could harm agencies’ effectiveness:
“If their logic is that law enforcement should turn away and avert their gaze when they see something in public that could be illegal or incriminating, I am not sure how effective protecting the public the police could be,” the official told Politico. “For instance, would this extend to barring the police from checking ‘Craig’s List’ for goods reported stolen from a local break-in? What about looking through the glass case of a local pawn shop for stolen items? Where would they like the line to be drawn?”
Importantly, there are real-world examples that may prove useful when trying to sort out such an “effectiveness or civil liberties” dilemma. Russia already has a history of people getting jail terms for social media posts. There, you don’t have to go as far as filming yourself committing or planning a crime: a politically-inclined joke or a post appearing to criticize the country’s administration will suffice for law enforcement to act.
The U.S. is in a tough spot. Protesters, individual police officers, and regulators all have difficult decisions to make. Assuming that a meaningful police reform comes, the issue of social media surveillance will have to be addressed and regulated. The same goes for facial recognition technology and a slew of spy tools available to modern police forces.
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