US Border agents to start collecting social media data

EFF has publicised a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which details a new policy by US border police in which agents ask Muslim Americans returning home for travels abroad for social media handles, but also going as far as asking for access to mobile phones through handles, passcodes and passwords, and then looking at private communications in social media apps.

There are a couple of interesting elements to the story. The first is a legitimate concern about the intrusion into the private lives of US citizens through the access to their devices without a warrant. With most of our lives held in mobile phones, we should expect that authorities would have to respect the rule of law with regards to gadgets and social media data. An erosion of those rights by the demand of passwords and passcodes is a direct affront to a person’s privacy.

While worrisome, the above is not the reason why I am writing this blog post, after all, I do not specialise in human rights and privacy issues, although I tend to be on the side of defending civil liberties when it comes to surveillance. What really struck me about the news is that there is little indication of what are the US authorities trying to achieve with such actions. While the report does state that the officers have gone through content and private messages, the chance of finding something incriminating and suspicious from such a random search is minuscule.

What I think that is happening is that the US border police may be rolling out a program to harvest contact metadata in an attempt to conduct social network analysis on the subjects, and also to create a social media database. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we already know that the NSA has been involved in surveillance practices that collect data from services, and systems like XKeyscore and Prism are used to gain access to online communications. However, this data can be incomplete, and can only be about specific services. A person’s social network is a much more valuable tool to investigate. One interesting thing that has become evident in the last year is that people tend to cluster around social networks, and the opinions held by those in a social media environment can shape various things, such as voting patterns.

If US authorities were able to gain contacts held in phones, this would uncover people’s actual opinions more accurately than any quick browse of the content of messages. If I follow The Daily Mail, Breitbart, and Donald Trump on Twitter, it is likely that my political affiliation will be leaning towards the right. If I follow jihadi accounts and interact with people in ISIS conversations, then there may be room for concern.

The question is whether such a tool would be effective in uncovering real threats, and here I am very sceptical. While social media circles can accurately depict some of your political opinions, they could produce false positives, but they could also be used to turn normal practices into suspicious behaviour. Moreover, strong religious belief does not translate into harm, just as following the alt-right does not make one a potential domestic terrorist. I am also concerned that as the Trump administration veers towards authoritarianism, social media contact databases could be used for more nefarious purposes, such as targeting legitimate protesters.

Yet another area of concern in these troubled times.

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