It’s projected that by August, Facebook will have amassed one billion users, or about one in seven people worldwide. In light of this news, the thought of the gargantuan amount of data — in the form of comments, messages, photos, videos and other media — is staggering. But along with other social networking sites like Twitter and Google+, Facebook is not just for keeping in touch with old high school friends. At least, not according to Department of Homeland Security, who, it should be common knowledge by now, regularly monitors such sites for divulged secrets and threats against the U.S. and our interests. In fact, many DHS agents must take homeland security classes to learn the specific protocol for gathering intel off sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Knowing that eyes are constantly watching what you say online raises some serious Orwellian questions. Should we be concerned about what we post? What if you’re simply in an extremely irritable mood after a nasty breakup and hastily write that you want to bomb a government building? If there are a billion Facebook users, what are the odds that your lone offhand message will send up a red flag in Washington? Could you be investigated or detained for writing such an innocent — albeit imprudent — comment?
Not to worry, says the DHS. For one thing, the intel gathered is strictly for “situational awareness” and to establish “a common operating picture.” What this means is that the DHS is allegedly monitoring sites not to nab just anyone who makes a vaguely suspicious remark but simply to create an informational mosaic of what’s trending on the Internet. After all, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings last year were instigated and orchestrated mainly through the use of social networking sites. This movement prompted the DHS to question whether it needs to be doing more to keep surveillance on what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter.
Consider also that Facebook and several other sites — including Twitter, WikiLeaks, the Huffington Post, Hulu, the Drudge Report and even MySpace — have been on the feds’ radar since at least June 2010. If your suspicious comments haven’t already invited the guys in black suits and shades to pay you a visit, it’s reasonable to say that you’re not their prime target.
Even if the DHS does hone in on your Facebook or Twitter account, the department claims it doesn’t keep permanent records of what you say — no longer than five years, to be exact. But for most of us, it’s unsettling to think of our most shameful words and photos sitting in some hard drive in Washington, even for five years. After all, isn’t this how 1984’s enigmatic ruler Big Brother got his start, peering into the thoughts of his citizens?
No need to overreact, says the DHS. The defense company to which they farm out the task of monitoring, General Dynamics, is responsible and well-trained. Several times a year, agents are required to attend courses in gathering intel from social networking sites, and if they are caught abusing their position, they’re removed from the program.
Of course, this is unlikely to put many people’s minds at ease. And for those who couldn’t care less, they’ll end up posting Facebook statuses and tweeting without any inhibitions anyway.