Who’s Watching You on Social Media?

Crime, Politics, Rights, Technology

You’ve probably heard stories about people who have lost their jobs because of something they posted online, and you may have thought to yourself that it will never happen to you. Maybe you’re right, but without knowing who is watching your Internet activity and why, you could be vulnerable—and not just from employers, but law enforcement as well.

Social media is still a relatively new concept, and many people don’t realize how closely it’s monitored. The days of keeping your thoughts, likes, and habits between yourself and a few close friends are largely over. Nowadays, there’s nowhere to hide, especially with employers and schools demanding access to people’s online lives.

So who, besides stalkery exes, might be watching you on social media, and how far is it legal for them to go?

The Police

Police departments use social media regularly, not only to communicate with the public, but also in criminal investigations. According to a survey by the International Associated of Chiefs of Police (IACP), 81 percent of agencies use social media, primarily as an investigative tool. Nearly 67 percent of those use Facebook as their go-to site for checking out possible criminals, with Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube not far behind. The lesson here: don’t brag on Facebook about mugging that guy behind the 7-11.

The Government

In January of this year, Reuters reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “routinely monitors dozens of popular websites…” which include social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, along with blogs, gossip, and news sites. The report states that the purpose of Internet monitoring by Homeland Security is to stay on top of developing events in order to respond more effectively. DHS reports that they only monitor public sites and profiles, and do not keep permanent records of what they find.

What the report doesn’t say, though, is that DHS is also looking for specific words in status updates or tweets. If you have updates that contain some combination of the words on their watch list, you could be subject to closer scrutiny. The list includes words DHS would obviously be interested in, such as “al Quaeda” and “dirty bomb,” but it also includes more innocuous words, such as “pork” and “San Diego.” If you prefer to stay off DHS’s radar, be careful what you tweet—especially if you enjoy Southern California barbecue.

Employers and Schools

If you don’t think potential employers are Googling job applicants, you’re in for a surprise. Not only will they check you out online, including any social media you leave open to public viewing, but they will compile and analyze data based on what they find.

Until recently, you could be fairly comfortable in the knowledge that the pictures from your wild weekend in Miami were only viewable by your nearest and dearest, but very recently, the news has been full of stories of employers and universities demanding that employees and students give up their passwords to sites like Facebook or risk being fired or expelled. Critics say it’s an invasion of privacy akin to demanding someone’s email password or rifling through their personal mail, and that the practice is rife with potential legal concerns.

It’s important to remember that, though you may think what you do from your own home computer is your business, when you are on your work computer, your employer can, and probably does, track everything you do online. So, if you want to keep your Facebook and Twitter posts private from work, access them through your phone only or wait until you get home.

Social Media, Privacy, and the Law

Because social media is still relatively new, the law is unclear when it comes to privacy and who can reasonably track what. In response, several states have pending legislation addressing whether your Facebook and other locked down social media sites are private in the same way your mail is. Last week, Representative Ed Perlmutter (D) from Colorado introduced legislation in the House that would have prohibited employers from asking for access to employee social networking login information. The amendment was voted down along party lines, making it likely that privacy and social media will be decided in the courts rather than by policymakers, with several cases currently pending.