Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. The big three, current social media outlets. Odds are, if you have one of the above, a large part of your life is spent on them and an even larger part is posted on them. Beach pictures, dinner plans, artsy travel albums are all out there with an illusion of privacy. All of these websites offer some form of privacy settings and most users choose to make their profile private. But how well do these settings help when Big Brother comes knocking?
In a press release, Twitter told the public that last year, the FBI requested information about certain users via national security letters (NSLs). Normally, to inquire information, law enforcers need cause and a warrant. NSLs are a way around this. Available since the 70’s, the use of them has dramatically increased since the passing of the USA Patriot Act of 2001. Agencies such as the FBI only need to have a suspicion that national security is in jeopardy to issue one (https://www.eff.org/issues/national-security-letters). They also normally include gag orders, which is why Twitter only recently revealed the nature of the requests made last year.
Twitter is not the only tech company hit with NSLs—Google and Yahoo have both released similar statements—nor did they fully cooperate with the letters. Associate general counsel at Twitter, Elizabeth Banker, said “While the actual NSLs request a large amount of data, Twitter provides a very limited set of data in response to NSLs consistent with federal law.” Many believe the FBI is overstepping its bounds set by the Justice Department in a 2008 memo regarding the use of NSLs.
What does this mean for regular people? While the NSLs presented to Twitter included names, the copies released had them redacted. That being said, it is safe to assume, or at least hope, that the FBI was inquiring about terror group affiliated suspects, who often use social media as a form of underground communications. But what if this assumption is wrong?
It is feasible that the FBI is making information requests about anyone at any time and because these requests come with a gag order, the public would not hear about it until years later. Who knows how many orders there currently are? Whether the president is Barack Obama or Donald Trump, I am against letting the government have access to private information without a warrant or cause.
There is an argument for this though, the same one used to pass the Patriot Act after 9/11: National security. The argument is that by giving up some freedom, we can better protect ourselves from terror threats. And this makes sense. How can we expect the government, namely the FBI and the NSA, to catch terror attacks before they happen if we do not give them the right to do so?
It is a catch 22. We simultaneously trust the government to protect us from others yet do not trust them to protect us from themselves. We expect them to know everything about everyone else but nothing about ourselves. We expect them to predict attacks and stop them before they ever happen. How exactly does that work? There are ways to narrow down the suspect pool based on patterns, yet then the masses cry of racial profiling. Then, the only way to determine who is a threat is to sort through everyone which angers the innocent.
A compromise is in order, yet is hard to achieve. How can we allow security agencies to do their job while protecting ourselves from them? The current system is not working. Vast reaching NSLs with gag orders that have little legal checks and balances are not the way to go, yet an ignorant government makes for an easy target to attacks.
Currently there is no solution and the best method depends on who you ask. But until there are clearer laws, we should all watch what we do. Exercise prudence in what you search, what you view, and what you post because chances are, someone else is watching.
David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.