Table of contents
- Can the government see your social media?
- Who is exposed to social media surveillance?
- What agencies besides the FBI monitor social media?
- Why does the government track social media?
- Reasons why the government should monitor social media
- Does the U.S. government have limits on media monitoring?
Can the government see your social media?
Many social media users falsely assume that it’s only their friends who can see what they post online. That’s not true. Depending on your privacy settings, everything you post could be visible to anyone who visits your profile—whether they’re friends or not. This can include government officials who have decided, for whatever reason, you should be watched. Strengthen your privacy settings, as our article covering a cyberstalking definition explains it.
They are watching
The FBI, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are just some of the government agencies that routinely monitor social media platforms for a range of reasons, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Who is exposed to social media surveillance?
Anyone can be subject to government monitoring on social media, but there are some groups that experience it more frequently than others. Minorities more commonly associated with crime—as well as activists and dissenters—are seen as bigger threats than others by the FBI.
It’s unlikely that the government is interested in seeing photos of your most recent vacation, your new puppy, or what you had for dinner this week. But if you’ve ever engaged in behavior that the government deems suspicious, you could be on an agency’s watchlist. The FBI is said to be most concerned about threats of violence and suggestions of terrorism.
What agencies besides the FBI monitor social media?
The Department for Homeland Security, the State Department, and the National Security Agency (NSA) are just some of the government agencies that monitor social media as part of their mass surveillance tactics, alongside the FBI.
Other federal departments that are known to use social media, either for ongoing monitoring or as part of their investigations, include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Local law enforcement agencies regularly use social media as part of their investigations, too. Given that many of us post so much information online and share our locations, this data can often be used to ascertain the details of a case, like who was involved.
Why does the government track social media?
Government tracking on social media is most commonly used in assisting with criminal and civil investigations. Protecting national security, particularly from terrorism, is another common reason.
In addition, social media is used by DHS and the State Department to screen and vet travelers and immigrants who enter the United States.
As of June 2019, almost all who apply for U.S. visas are required to disclose their social media accounts, which are then checked for any questionable activity. Some are also used to monitor visitors while they are in the U.S.
Privacy activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) believe that the government can and often does go too far when it comes to mass surveillance in the digital world. In many cases, it might be difficult to argue with that, particularly when we consider whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the tactics used by the NSA.
However, online surveillance, like social media monitoring, plays a key role in solving and prosecuting criminal cases every single day. It has also helped solve cold cases that hit a dead end when no other evidence was uncovered during initial investigations.
Reasons why the government should monitor social media
Social media monitoring may seem like a violation of your privacy, but government agencies insist that mass surveillance is a necessary component in its efforts to protect U.S. citizens. It also helps agencies prioritize issues by monitoring increases in social activity.
When we consider events like the U.S. Capitol riot in January 2021, it was organized almost entirely on social media. In the weeks leading up to the incident, there were more than 1 million mentions of storming the capitol on social media, and the FBI has been criticized for being aware of this but not taking appropriate action to prevent the events that took place.
When appropriate action is taken, it can help stop potentially catastrophic events. Suspicious online activity identified by the FBI led to the 2019 arrest of a man who planned to buy weapons and then carry out a terrorist attack on New York City’s Times Square.
Does the U.S. government have limits on media monitoring?
It is sometimes believed that the U.S. government has unlimited access to your data, but there are constitutional laws that restrict its monitoring.
For instance, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, while the Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches by the government. These things obviously haven’t prevented mass surveillance, but they do make it more difficult for government and law enforcement agencies to dig into a citizen’s personal data.
One of the most important laws when it comes to social media monitoring is the Privacy Act. It limits the collection, storage, and sharing of personal information about U.S. citizens and permanent residents, including social media data. Bear in mind, however, that there is an exception for data “within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity.”
So, there are laws that make it illegal for certain records to be obtained or for your phone to be searched without a warrant. These things are considered private information. However, when you post something on social media, it then becomes public, so a search warrant isn’t necessary. Anyone, including the government, is free to look at social media profiles.
It’s up to you to limit the information you make public. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others all provide the ability to restrict access to your profile for those who aren’t friends, and we have a guide on how to protect your online privacy if you’re interested in learning more.
Social media is a great way to document your travels, adventures, and many other activities you might get up to. These are things we like to share with friends. However, it’s important to remember that no matter how selective you may be with your friends list, it’s not just those you’ve approved or accepted who can see the things you post online.
The government is watching social media, as we explained in our article on “Who Is Tracking Me,” so it’s important to consider what you share before you publish a new post. You should also ensure that you take advantage of the privacy features offered by social networks to prevent those who aren’t friends from accessing your content.
To protect your smartphone itself, use Clario AntiSpy to scan your device for potential spyware. It can identify suspicious software and offers some of the best identity theft protection, informing you of any data breaches and allowing you to mask your real location.