With Big Brother watching, what’s your choice now?

Social media platforms from Facebook to WhatsApp to Twitter have made the job of spy agencies easier

By Kiran N. Kumar

Ever since the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” came from George Orwell’s book “1984” referring to how the government monitors and controls its citizens, the concept has undergone several modifications.

When Facebook overwhelmed billions of people, there was a smile on the face of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that it doesn’t need to keep a vigil on people individually as the social media would.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has made the workload of spy agencies across the world far more easier with surveillance tools deployed to watch any individual’s social media platform from Facebook to WhatsApp or Twitter. Now the agencies are able to track a person, his comments, activities, status and even location every minute and hour.

Read: Urgent need for stricter rules to ensure cyber security: India’s UN envoy (February 14, 2017)

As Alvin Toffler, US futurologist once said, the prosumer-driven society has taken off even in the realm of spying, taking the burden off the shoulders of the spying agencies or the government. Instead, citizens are unwittingly giving out their whereabouts openly. If not, the constant wi-fi connectivity is doing the rest, keeping the vigil chain perfect.

However, not everything made open is enough for the cycle of spying to be perfect. Of late, the spyware software Pegasus, developed by an Israeli firm, has made headlines as several governments are using it potentially to track prominent citizens or rebels.

While many governments stick to the national security requirement to use such spyware, social media has also taken a huge leap in the direction, defending on the ground that it’s voluntary and the privacy button is optional.

Very often, FaceBook or Twitter have addressed the privacy concern providing the user a choice to block sharing the data with third parties to “give better experience.”

As Toffler made it out, the prosumer here is giving out the data voluntarily exempting these messaging giants from any responsibility.
Even the Federal Trade Commission, whose principal mission is the enforcement of civil US antitrust law and the promotion of consumer protection, fined Facebook $5 billion two years ago for failure to comply with fair business practices and not for spying on users, who themselves provide this information.

Inevitably, there is a gap in determining privacy concerns of social media users. The governments across the globe are brainstorming to frame regulations and protect the privacy concerns of the users as social media remains a concern because of the “prosumer” element involved in it.

Everything revealed is voluntary but hacking and malware attacks take a knock at them. Even the much-discussed Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act waives liability for social media companies when illegal content is posted to their platforms, as long as they make a “good faith” effort to remove it in accordance with the law.

Many government agencies have refrained from defining “good faith” as it may eventually run into the First Amendment. The FTC can only intervene when social media companies like Facebook fail to comply with sharing user data with third parties or ad agencies as in the case of the $5 billion fine.

Beyond that, the regulation of social media platforms remains a grave area. Even for government spy agencies, regulating social media remains a big challenge.

As long as social media companies comply with government requests to reveal the people behind unlawful posts and to delete sensational posts or conspiracies whenever required, there is nothing the governments can do at present.

Read: Twitter’s New Owner Elon Musk Wants DMs to be End-to-End Encrypted like Signal (April 28, 2022)

But fears abound that the social media platforms may emerge as “super governments” with far greater capability of monitoring any individual minute by minute. That leaves the baffled citizen to decide how far he can be a “prosumer” in content sharing and a “consumer” in making use of it.

Not doing either effectively isolates him from society with inevitable social consequences and mental pressure, which is monumental compared to being spied on by governments or ad companies.

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