Social media is making Big Brother fat, lazy, and listless. No longer does government need to just set up massive dragnets, special ops, and hire informants to monitor their citizens and people looking to enter their countries en masse. They can now also just sit back and monitor Facebook, Twitter, and blogs as the world volunteers massive amounts of personal information about themselves for free and without provocation.
Last month, a couple of twenty something British tourists looking to enter the USA were arrested by immigration authorities and kept in private holding cells for 12 hours before being deported back to the UK. In the weeks leading u to their trip one of them made some jokes on Twitter that the Department of Homeland Security did not take very kindly to:
“Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?”
“3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!”
Pretty stupid things to tweet, true, but the US authorities took these words literally. It has been reported that they even searched their luggage for shovels.
The above case proves that immigration officials use social media/ virtual data to collect information on people coming to their countries — and I do not believe that this is special to the USA. All of the content that you publish about yourself online can be evaluated by immigration/ consular officers worldwide, and could have an impact on whether you’re admitted or denied entry.
When I returned to the USA after traveling in Iraq immigration authorities were ready for me. They scanned my passport then immediately shoved it into a manila folder without even looking at the visa stamps. They knew where I’d been and wanted to talk to me about it. Fair enough. I was then sent into an interrogation room where I had to explain what I was doing traveling in the Middle East. It was not much of a problem, I was treated courteously, and it became clear very quickly that I was just a travel writer at work.
“Why did you go to Iraq?” the interrogator asked.
“People don’t go to Iraq for fun.”
“I’m a traveler and I want to go to all the countries of the world — and Iraq is one of them.”
That could not be argued against.
It is my impression that the only way the authorities of my country could have known where I traveled was because I told them all about it on this website, Facebook, and Twitter. My wife, who is not referred to by her first name on this site and is not overtly active on social media, was not questioned.
When it comes to surveillance, the main difference between publishing on the internet and publishing in print is that it is all too easy to search for someone’s name in conjunction with a variety of pernicious keywords or to monitor the publication of certain phrases, terms, and strings of words. All an immigration official now needs to do is hit up any search engine, type in a query on you, and just about everything you ever published or has been published about you becomes instantly available. The Department of Homeland Security of the United States has admitted that they have programs running which search the internet for individuals posting information that could be construed as threatening, and I’m sure that many other countries do the same.
The next time you show up at a border or apply for a visa rest assured that the people making the immigration decision may have scoured your Facebook profile, your Twitter account, and read your blog. Given this, a new form of censorship is taking over the internet: self-censorship. This is perhaps the most invasive and volatile of all. Rather than having the powers that be telling you what you can and can’t publish, savvy internet writers will just do this for themselves by not publishing anything with a higher potential of being misconstrued in a disadvantageous way.
With each blog post, each tweet, each Facebook update you make you must be prepared to stand by it through any way that it could be interpreted, misinterpreted, or manipulated. Do you really want that consular official who is deciding to grant or deny you access to their country looking at Facebook photos of you getting drunk and partying with strippers? Do you really want to lend immigration officers the power of interpretation over all your sarcastic/ political/ humorous Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts? The British tourist made a stupid joke on Twitter and his vacation came to an abrupt end before it even began. This could happen to any traveler who is active on the internet.
From Wired.com, The Eternal Value of Privacy:
Bruce Schneier highlighted how we lose our individuality if we are under an ever-watchful eye:
Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.
Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.