When Social Media makes you a target

Governments are profiling people using their social media data -- effectively weaponising the devices and the platforms we use everyday.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Every day we engage online in many activities and for many reasons including getting information, accessing services, and interacting with friends, to name a few.

The content collected and the metadata generated through our online interactions are analysed to gather information, which enables groups of users to be targeted and profiled. Such techniques are increasingly used by governments all over the world to single out specific people or groups, monitor and target them, and limit their rights and dignity online and offline. 

These practices are effectively weaponising the devices and the platforms we use everyday: what should be empowering tools are now being used against us.

What is the problem

Companies are designing their platforms and services with the primary aim of generating profit. In many sectors, this has increasingly become synonym with developing business models reliant and dependent on the exploitation and monetisation of users’ data and/or the intelligence which can be derived from it. And social medial platforms and other online service providers are not exception.

Because of the way these services are designed and operate, the possibility to make use of the content data and metadata generated through our online interactions has been facilitated, promoted and marketed through what is known as social media intelligence.

The use of social media surveillance techniques and technologies pose a serious threat to privacy and other fundamental rights and freedoms. Our digital data trails and the content we share are being used by companies and governments to make predictions about our views, our beliefs, and our behaviour – including whether we would commit a crime and whether we are deserving of social assistance. And it doesn’t affect only the person being monitored but also the whole social network they are part of. This puts people at risk, in particular individuals and communities who are inherently at risk of being targeted because of the current socio-economic and political power structures,such as women, LGBTI people, journalists and human rights defenders, as well as recipients of state welfare, aid and those migrating and seeking refuge.

In a world where our online interactions have become inseparable from the physical world, this abuse risks impacting every aspect of our lives.

What is the solution

Users should enjoy the highest level of protections for the content and metadata generated through their online interactions: even if content is publicly available that does not mean it can be used by anyone for any purposes, and that it can be used to profile and target which can lead to discriminate against people.

Platforms should provide protection to all users without discrimination, and they should be audited and monitored on an ongoing basis, including examining disparate impacts on different communities. They should ensure that they undertake comprehensive assessments of their platforms and make specific changes to remove unnecessary structural and business-driven features specificities that expose and make accessible to others content data and metadata generated by digital social interactions, and that ultimately put people at risk.  

Governments should limit the use of data, including metadata, generated by digital interactions. These rules must require enforcement agencies, security services, and companies to undertake thorough assessment of when social media intelligencetechniques are necessary and proportionate to the aims pursued, alongside developing strong and auditable rules and procedures to protect fundamental rights.  Such decisions should be subject to judicial authorisation when conducting social media intelligence activities so that those conducting them can be held accountable, and those who are affected can be notified.

What PI is doing

Considering the present and future risk for the right to privacy that social media surveillance presents, a clear and transparent legal framework to regulate the use of social media intelligence is vital.

Exposing harm and lived experiences: Working with a global network of partners, we document and expose the harm caused by these practices by doing research and telling the stories of people and communities who have been affected.  Our work in this area prioritises documenting the harms experienced by various communities at risk we have identified including migrants and refugees, human rights defenders and journalists, and those exposed to gender-based violence.

Demanding change from companies: We are calling on companies to be transparent about their business models and how their systems work and demanding that unnecessary business or structural features and specificities that enable the generation and processing of data and expose content data and metadata to unauthorised third parties be reviewed and amended.

Demanding change from governments: We demand that governments be transparent about their use of social media intelligence tools, how these techniques are used by government bodies, including as part of law enforcement and immigration purposes, to profile, target and predict how people behave, and how clarify how the data inferred from these activities will be used in practice. 

Building knowledge to enable action: PI is working with a variety of organisations and civil society organisations that provide assistance to, support and advocate for the rights of different communities affected by these exploitative practices. We develop educational materials on how these systems operate, methodology for researching and analysing such programmes, strategies to mitigate the risks and to make informed choices of how to engage online more securely. We provide training and engagement activities for the civil society organisations sector, as well as for the judiciary and legal community.