I’m getting friend requests on MySpace and Facebook that have me worried. It’s not that I’m unfriendly. If people want to friend me, I usually say yes, so long as they include some info on where they saw my details and how come they’re getting in touch.
And I’ve come to recognize spammers - those impossibly friendly girls who seem to have trouble keeping their clothes on.
No, what worries me is how the authorities might be using social networking. They don’t have to spy on us any more. We’re doing the job for them. I read how some researchers can now use people’s friends lists to work out if they’re gay.
If one individual becomes a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, then anyone associated with them, however remotely, is also under suspicion.
Intelligence agencies learn a lot through what they call ‘traffic analysis’. They monitor messages travelling across phone, email and other networks. They don’t care about what’s in the messages, but who’s sending them, who’s receiving them, and when they’re sent.
For example, let’s say the NSA is monitoring a group of people it thinks might be terrorists. A message gets sent out by one of the group to three people. The content of the message is encrypted, or maybe it’s in plain text but using a secret message that means nothing to the NSA. Zero intelligence, you might think. But immediately, each of those three recipients sends out identical (or identically sized) messages to three more people. And those new recipients do the same. Even without understanding the contents of the message, the NSA has a fully mapped chain of command for the terrorist group. And if some recipients weren’t on their original watchlist … well they are now.
A social network is a rich hunting ground for traffic analysts. And what’s really worrying is just how dumb some of this analysis might be.
Let’s say someone with an interest in radical ideas - let’s call him M - goes to a party. Someone else at the party takes a snap of M and puts the picture on their Facebook page. They tag M. Then they notice that you’re in the picture, too - not with M, but in the background. They tag you.
The NSA’s computers regularly scour the net. M is on their list of names to watch for. They pick up M in the tag - and they pick up you in the same image. As of now, you’re ‘associated’ with M. The computer isn’t smart enough to work out that you’re busy trying, and failing, to get off with the goth girl who’s just outside of the photograph’s frame. The computer has no way of knowing that you didn’t speak to M the whole evening, have never met him, and to this day have no idea that he exists.
Perhaps some human at the NSA will eventually view the image and decide that your association with M is coincidental and circumstantial. Perhaps not. Either way, you’re on a list.
Think this can’t happen? Google the story of Maher Arar. And his detention and torture resulted from more old-fashioned intelligence gathering. Now, the discovery of these kinds of accidental links is automated. Welcome to the world of self-surveillance.