Flickr Creative Commons, Jason Howie.

Building a Model for Ethical Social Media Surveillance

By Lee Clark


The term social media refers to websites or applications that allow users to create profiles and interact with one another. Users may be individual people, organizations, businesses, government entities, products, entertainment platforms, etc. A social media application, at it’s most basic concept, represents a platform for communication. Communication on such sites may be conducted through private instant messaging, publicly posted content, or multimedia content. Most social media applications allow for customizable privacy settings, allowing users a degree of control over the audience for their content. Social media is a relatively new development in society, arising over the past two decades. While perhaps not revolutionary in concept, social media has had significant impacts on several facets of society, such as: political discourse, social networking, and government surveillance.

Growing social media. Flickr Creative Commons, mkhmarketing.

The last point is the subject of this paper. The rise of social media was quick, and it’s impact on the public has been nuanced and far-reaching. As a result, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have adapted collection strategies to utilize this new technology. Often, in their haste to develop capabilities, these agencies rushed into the thick of social media sites in search of actionable information without seriously considering the situation. Privacy concerns, constitutional restrictions, activist groups, public opinion, and regulation are all major concerns that must be weighed by an agency pursuing social media surveillance capabilities. Unfortunately, many agencies developed these capabilities before seriously considering consequences or nuances.

For example, in Oregon, the state’s Department Of Justice recently experienced a scandal when it was revealed to the public that investigators were using online search tools to track the social media activity of Black Lives Matter protestors. The revelation sparked protests from civil society groups and an internal investigation by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (1). In this case, the agency conducting surveillance did not adequately consider the ramifications of tracking individuals for political affiliations, resulting in damaging public outcry.

In another instance, police in Fresno, California were using social media to create “threat scores” for individuals deemed to be suspicious based on rhetoric on social media, arrest records, commercial databases, and property records. The program was instituted without adequate oversight, and was soon found to be unreliable. The system was prone to mark an individual as a threat to public safety for misinterpretations of phrases or language critical of police. Specifically, one woman was marked as the highest level of threat to officer safety after she posted a tweet commenting on a card game called “Rage (2).” Again, the agency demonstrated that by pursuing social media surveillance capabilities without a full understanding, accountability, transparency, and reliability concerns quickly became problematic.

In reaction to such missteps by government bodies, civil society attention to the issue of government monitoring of social media has increased. Privacy advocates concerned about government overreach have proposed a number of reforms, including: limiting agency access to social media records to specific files, forbidding bulk data collection, triggering legal protections in the event of data access, blocking data collected for national security purposes from all other government uses, and limiting the use of social media data in network analyses (3).


Clearly, a clear structure and set of standard operating procedures is necessary for the successful use of social media surveillance capabilities while balancing public concerns. In a previous project, I proposed five specific procedures with the goal of incorporating transparency and accountability into social media surveillance by intelligence and law enforcement agencies (4). My proposals were: two-level policy reviews, training for intelligence collectors, limiting usage and scope of surveillance, experimenting with external monitoring softwares, and instituting policy structure before acquiring surveillance capabilities. Here, I will present a visual model for conducting surveillance on social media as a government agency in an ethical manner.

Theoretical Model for Multiple Actors

My model is rooted firmly in the theoretical work of Daniel Trottier and Christian Fuchs. In a recent article, Trottier and Fuchs developed a model representing various facets of social media surveillance. Their model is included below (5):

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 3.07.31 AM

This model is complex and involves various levels of surveillance. It allows for user-to user surveillance, marketing research, economic research, sociological interactions, and government surveillance. Trottier and Fuchs note that social media surveillance is based on synthesizing social roles and activities of institutions and individuals, and that the techno-social process of collecting this data constitutes a form of open source intelligence collection (6). Though their model is complex and based is sociological theory, it is useful from an ethical intelligence-gathering perspective with a few modifications.

Practical Model for Government Agencies

For the purpose of creating a basic model to demonstrate the effects of my policy proposals discussed above, I modified and focused Trottier and Fuch’s model. The focused version is included below:

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 3.07.52 AM

This model is far more limited in scope and nuance than Trottier and Fuch’s model, and it includes some modifications to represent concepts from my policy recommendations. The largest circle represents a social media application, containing various user profiles, represented by smaller colored circles. Lines between circles represent voluntary interactions between users, such as: likes, public comments, messages, and “friendship” connections. Black circles represent average user profiles, the red circle represents the profile of an individual engaged in threatening activity, and the blue circle represents a government agency conducting surveillance on the social media platform.

For the purposes of clarity, a hypothetical scenario is useful to contextualize the model. Let us assume that the social platform in question is Facebook. The red circle represents John, who is advertising stolen firearms for sale on his Facebook profile. The black circles represent John’s friends. The blue circle represents an FBI intelligence collector working on tracing stolen firearm sales.

We will begin with John, the red circle. John has his privacy settings enabled, so that his content is not visible to anyone not authorized specifically by him. Privacy settings constitute a barrier for law enforcement agencies (7). Under my proposed policy structure, John’s privacy settings create a expectation of privacy that should be protected by the fourth and sixth amendments to the US Constitution. John has a right to not be subject to unreasonable searches, as well as a right to due process under the law. His invocation of Facebook’s privacy features indicate a clear effort to maintain personal privacy. This brings us to the blue circle.

If the FBI (blue circle) is using social media surveillance as a method to investigate John’s activity, my policy enacts several restrictions. Currently, there is no law preventing the FBI from creating a Facebook profile under false information to interact with John and collect information.. Even if interacting with John on Facebook through a fake profile does not legally constitute a violation of John’s rights, it remains a clandestine action to gain incriminating evidence by deception. This opens the FBI to several issues, including ethical questions, potential legal action, and public backlash in the event of disclosure. In my policy structure, this action begins to resemble an unlawful search, and agencies must treat privacy settings as legal barriers, only to be circumvented with court justification such as a warrant

This protects both John and the FBI. By not interacting with John under false pretenses, John’s rights to due process and privacy are maintained, and the FBI is protected from legal retaliation. The organization’s’ integrity and the citizens’ liberties are safeguarded. In order to maintain social media surveillance capabilities and safeguard civil liberties, there are two options under my policy structure. The first is to acquire court justification for clandestine action like that described above.

However, the process of gaining court justification requires significant resources, including financial cost, labor, and time. In the event that this process is deemed too costly or too lengthy for the purposes of an investigation, there is a second option. If the FBI thinks John is selling stolen guns, but does not wish to exert the effort necessary to obtain a warrant because there are too many similar cases to John’s to realistically obtain court documents for all, the FBI can choose to use a monitoring software.

Monitoring softwares are effective platforms that allow users to search and browse unprotected (non-private) social media content. These softwares are commercially available and popular versions include Snaptrends, Geofeedia, and Beware. These softwares each have unique user interfaces, abilities, and search parameters. By using such a software, the FBI is creating a hard barrier between itself and the subject of its surveillance, adding transparency, accountability, and security to its collection operation.

If individuals have not enabled privacy restrictions on their social media activity, they have no expectation of privacy. These are the black circles in the model, John’s friends on Facebook, whose profiles are completely public; they have no expectation of or desire for privacy for their Facebook content. Though a monitoring software will not allow the FBI to see John’s content, it will allow them to search for John’s connections, social circle, activities, tagged photos, and mentions in posts. In a completely transparent and legally legitimate method, the FBI can collect invaluable information on John without ever interacting with him in an ethically questionable way.

Final Thoughts

Recent scandals and public issues over government use of social media as an intelligence tool clearly demonstrates a need for structure among intelligence collecting-agencies. The model proposed in this paper presents a structure that offers effective capabilities, guards against legal retaliation, mitigates ethical issues, and safeguards civil liberties of the American citizenry. However thorough in theory, additional study will be necessary to determine the feasibility and cost of implementing such a structure in existing intelligence agencies. Entrenched cultures, resistance to change, and budgetary restrictions are all potential barriers, but the current system is chaotic and high-risk. The policies here could safeguard capabilities in the long-term by preventing civil rights infractions that could be damaging to agencies.

  1. Denis C. Theriault, “Black Lives Matter: Oregon Justice Department Searched Social Media Hashtags,” The Orgonian, November 2015,
  2. Justin Jouvenal, “The New Way Police are Surveilling You: Calculating Your Threat ‘Score,’”  Washington Post, January 2016,
  3. Ian Brown, “Social Media Surveillance,” The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society: 4-5.
  4. Lee Clark,  “Options for Social Media Surveillance and Privacy Standards,” Research Paper, 2015.
  5. Christian Fuchs and Daniel Trottier, “Towards a Theoretical Model of Social Media Surveillance in Contemporary Society,” Communications 40 (1), 2015: 126.
  6. Ibid., 127-130.
  7. Trottier, Mutual augmentation of surveillance practices on social media, Queen’s University (Canada), ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011: 35.

Lee Clark

Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce and Print Editor for ExPatt Magazine. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at

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