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Yvonne Abraham

Surveillance is everywhere now


It’s all fun and games, until somebody gets arrested.

Facebook seemed harmless enough when we first signed up and started sharing our baby pics and pulled pork plates, our wit and political wisdom with all the world.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the riveting and inane status updates, the fun quizzes, the easy connections, cost us plenty. Joining the public square sacrifices our private selves, no matter how well we manage our settings. There are massive mountains of information about us out there, enough to allow advertisers, political campaigns, and others to target us with terrifying specificity.

When you think about that, cute turns creepy fast.


So now here comes the Boston Police Department with a plan to pay up to $1.4 million for software that rakes blogs, websites, chat rooms, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media for threats to the city. Hundreds of police departments across the country do the same thing. Officials here say the dragnet will sweep up only posts that are already public, and only in the interests of keeping us safe from terrorism.

Sounds pretty reasonable, right? We have nothing to fear if we’ve done nothing wrong. I kind of enjoy the thought of the BPD being subjected to close-ups of my culinary feats and my curated collection of appalling e-mails from readers.

But what if I posted on my disgust about the treatment of Muslims? Or my horror at the president-elect? Or my wish to take part in protests? What if I posted these things and I was a Muslim? Or had a Facebook friend who seems suspect? Would I become suspect, too?

Consider those questions, and you get a sense of why the American Civil Liberties Union is upset about this.

“This is about whether somebody’s freedom of speech and association should subject them to police scrutiny,” says Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the Massachusetts ACLU. “The police should stay out of your business unless they have reason to suspect that you were involved in criminal activity.”


She says digital dragnets don’t even work, at the local or national level, and that they waste resources that would be better used in community policing. It seems that we should settle that question before the city plows precious dollars into a program that could put a chill into some of its citizens.

We’ve got to be careful here. Innocent people can get caught up in these investigations. And the software has been used by police in other cities to track not terrorism but protests after police-involved deaths. Upon learning that, Facebook and others moved to block some of this surveillance: The idea that their users’ posts are being scrutinized by authorities is bad for business. If social media platforms were to put up a warning that posts and personal information could be seen by law enforcement, they’d lose users fast, says Stephanie Lacambra, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization.

It’s not just the police who get access, of course. One of the most chilling developments in this unsettling election season has been the emergence of micro-targeting by campaigns. Using Facebook personality quizzes, a company called Cambridge Analytica built psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. Working for Donald Trump, the company tailored ads to push exactly the right buttons to persuade users to support the Republican or reject his opponent.


We’ve got a serious problem when they can reach into our psyches.

And it’s about to get more serious. The nation elected a president who has only a passing familiarity with the Constitution. And he is hiring people all too willing to make his un-American dreams a reality.

In throwing our lives online, we’ve made freely available information that it might have taken an authoritarian state to extract in an earlier era. Nobody had to oppress it out of us: Because we like cat videos, we’re easier to find, and target, than ever.

What could possibly go wrong?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.