Oct. 6, 2013 at 4:57 AM ET
A teenager who claimed "sarcasm" after talking on Facebook about shooting up a kindergarten spent months in jail this year for making a "terroristic threat." Over the summer, Instagram photos of guns and money led to New York City’s largest gun bust ever. A mom's Facebook photo of her baby with a bong led to her 2010 arrest.
While criminals — or those guilty of ill-placed sarcasm — aren’t wising up about social media oversharing, tools for monitoring Americans online are increasingly accessible and affordable to authorities, no NSA-level clearance required. Those in charge are monitoring more and more and social networks are happy to comply, especially where extra revenue is involved.
If you share something publicly on social media, "you should expect the world to read it," said Andy Sellars, a staff attorney at the Digital Media Law Project. "And you should expect that world to include law enforcement."
Expect, in fact, anybody — now more than ever. Beyond the feds, marketers and cops, there is a growing customer base for Internet-monitoring contractors who sift through personal details readily available on the Internet. Recently, some schools began enlisting these services to follow students on social media and monitor for cyberbullying, and eventually others will catch on.
We may very well face a future where algorithms bust people en masse for referencing illegal "Game of Thrones" downloads, or run sweeps for insurance companies seeking non-smokers confessing to lapsing back into the habit. Instead of that one guy getting busted for a lame joke misinterpreted as a real threat, the new software has the potential to roll, Terminator-style, targeting every social media user with a shameful confession or questionable sense of humor.
The tools are getting better because there are more ways to get at the flood of data. As Twitter heads towards its IPO, the micro-messaging service is making its exclusive "firehose" of data available (for an undisclosed fee) to a growing number of third parties. While basic (and free) Twitter searches provide a limited amount of results, the Twitter firehose — previously open to only the likes of search engines such as Google and Bing — blasts everything publicly available on Twitter ... in real time.
While this firehose is valuable to marketers, data consulting firm BrightPlanet found a way to make it valuable (and affordable) to police departments. For only $150 a month, BrightPlanet's "BlueJay Law Enforcement Twitter Crime Scanner" allows cops to conduct very specific searches within the Twitter firehose.
"Monitor large public events, social unrest, gang communications and criminally predicated individuals," suggests the online pamphlet for the BlueJay browser tool, which reads like a mission statement for George Orwell's Ministry of Truth. "Identify potential witnesses and indicators for evidence."
The CSI of social media evidence gathering is mostly manual, but automating it could bring new benefits: A sudden flurry of tweets coming from a specific area can indicate anything from a riot to a natural disaster. As with most technologies, though, this is a double-edged sword.
"Used well, such tools should make police departments more aware of both local problems and complaints about their own work," Nate Anderson, author of The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed, wrote on Ars Technica. "Used less than well, it can be a bit creepy, sort of on par with having a kid's uncle listen outside her bedroom during a slumber party. And used badly, it can make a nice tool for keeping an eye on critics/dissenters."
What's more, software isn't the best interpreter of very human data. Anderson points out that some of the real examples used in BlueJay's promotional material include #gunfire, #protest and #meth, which may not only not provide any "actionable intelligence," but could in fact be people talking about "Breaking Bad."
Anyone familiar with Facebook knows what happens when we rely on bots more than humans to interpret social media interactions. Using real humans to interpret sensitive social media interaction could be a valuable service to someone with the right business plan.
Geo Listening grabbed a lot of attention recently when it was reported that a suburban Los Angeles school district paid the social media monitoring company $40,500 to monitor the public posts of about 13,000 middle and high school students, eight schools in all.
Unlike BlueJay, Geo Listening is a full-service monitoring system which uses a staff of 10 humans, as well as contractors, to examine the public posts pinged by its monitoring technology, and send daily reports back to the schools. Public posts that use terms that signify drug use, bullying, suicidal thoughts, vandalism, truancy and violations of the school's code of conduct, are examined for context, and only reported if they warrant concert, Geo Listening CEO Chris Frydrych told NBC News.
During the initial pilot program for the Glendale school district in L.A., Frydrych said his team found a student who was posting about taking his life. "We were able to get him help," Frydrych said, adding that a goal of his company is not to get students in trouble, but to identify where intervention is needed. "These are kids who need help, and we can get it to them," he say.
It's hard to knock something that might actually do something about cyberbullying, but the intersection of students, free speech and social media was contentious long before Geo Listening ever got into business. Students are suspended or expelled for criticizing teachers or posting photos of themselves engaging in inappropriate behavior. Last year, an F-bomb-filled tweet sent at 2:30 a.m. got one student expelled three months before graduation, because he allegedly accessed Twitter through a school-issued computer.
Such social media monitoring services are sold on the platform that they can stop bad things from happening, but is that enough of a justification?
"We could stop bad things from happening if we install cameras in everyone’s bedroom in America," Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. "Which trade-off are we willing to accept? Every word, every fleeting thought we type into a search engine and every product we think about buying gets recorded by a large database, not to help us but to exert power over us."
"Spying is the nature of our society," Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said recently an an event in New York City. Despite his infamously cavalier attitude toward the privacy of Google users, he has a point.
As social networks continues to look for ways to make money, the potential for providing direct access to the information we share publicly online is unsettling. Consider Facebook, and its infinite database of publicly shared photos on the Internet. In August, the social network announced that it might add profile photos to its facial recognition database, to aid in photo tagging.
"Can I say that we will never use facial recognition technology for any other purposes? Absolutely not," Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan said in a statement.
Of course, like all social media, you can opt out. At least for now.