The Tense Relationship Between Social Media Intelligence and Privacy

The Tense Relationship Between Social Media Intelligence and Privacy

Social media has transformed social life because of the prominent communicative role that its networks and platforms have achieved in the modern era and the new social environments that they have created. However, SOCMINT entails a great challenge as it requires access by default to the private information of social media users, affecting the legitimacy of the intelligence community as well as the morality and legality of carrying out SOCMINT surveillance.

by Alejandra Bringas Colmenarejo

Social media may be considered the most major source of information about societies, individuals, and communities that has ever existed to such an extent that it could become essential to understand the social dynamics and interactions that affect international security. Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) could enable the intelligence community to tackle criminal activities and behaviours by providing warnings about outbreaks of public disorders, providing information about extremist and radicalised groups and individuals, or helping policymakers and state agencies to give a response to any kind of situation [1]. However, this intelligence assumption creates strong debates about the public nature of the information collected, the morality of the methods used for such purpose, and the real efficiency of the process.

SOCMINT is defined as ‘the process of identification, validation, collection and analysis of data and information from social media using intrusive and non-intrusive methods [opened, closed and/or clandestine channels], with the aim of developing a product for national security’ [2]. In this sense, the information accessed, processed and analysed by SOCMINT could be classified into four categories: (1) The information obtained through open and closed sources that neither identify nor could identify a concrete person – e.g. aggregated data about locations or public transport. (2) Information accessed through open channels which either identify or could identify a concrete person – such as name, gender, age, nationality. (3) Information either open or closed which is specifically accessed through covert, misleading, or deceiving tactics – e.g. posting provocative messages to tackle the social responses or entering friends-locked groups using fake, personal, or unofficial profiles. (4) Closed information accessed using clandestine tactics – such as decoding technologies or hacking software [3].

Based on this classification, it might be logical to think that, despite intelligence actions carried out to obtain specific information, SOCMINT is mainly focused on the continuous and uninterrupted access and collection of large open data sets, information for which there is no universal agreement regarding its public accessibility. On the one hand, platform companies generally consider users’ information to be publicly available when it is accessible (1) to any member of the user network within the platform; (2) to any other platform user, even though they do not coincide in any common network, or (3) to any third party external to the social media platform through unrestricted methods. On the other hand, platforms users, law enforcement agencies, and  society usually defend more restrictive definitions of privacy and intimacy so that the access to social media information is limited to specific circumstances [4]. 

The lack of consensus between social media and society about this issue leads to the possible obtention of private, sensitive, and intimate information usually without the consent and the knowledge of the social media user. Consequently, SOCMINT either performed through restricted or unrestricted channels could entail an infringement of the right of privacy and an abuse of the expectations of non-state interference in the private lives of its citizens [5]. Added to this, the novel and constantly changing characteristics of social media is complicating the classification of social media platforms as public or private spaces, provoking a number of legal controversies and loopholes. This problem can be worsened due to the number of social media networks that coexist and have different hierarchical levels of privacy; meaning  some information could be unrestricted for one group of people but could be restricted to outsiders in accordance with the pertinent settings.

The legally admissive access to social media data and its moral and ethical acceptance involve a fragile balance of interests, as the intelligence process could be considered an incisive intrusion into an individuals’ privacy. In fact, this problem also relates to people’s indifference to share their private life online without questioning how their data could be used or which level of protection is granted to it. In this regard, the peculiarities of social media have created a sense of disconnection between the real and the virtual world facilitating the sharing of personal information, political opinions, or religious beliefs, exposing the individual’s life with a lack of restriction and an excessive expectation that the state will respect their privacy [6].

Nevertheless, it may  be argued that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists if the user believes their data remains private because of their explicit efforts to achieve that exclusion from third parties’ access or knowledge; or if the whole society considers that such information belongs to the individual’s private sphere [7]. This divergence of opinions between the users, society, and legal systems could negatively affect a user’s privacy. Whilst society and users’ understandings of privacy could differ it is just as true that societal and individual expectations of privacy could collide with the social media platform’s privacy settings or with enforced legislation so that, contrary to the societal expectation, the information is legally considered public or non-directly defined as private making it accessible for  third parties [8].

To this effect, social media is considered as a privately-owned public sphere:  spaces owned by private companies where people voluntarily join and freely share public, private, or even intimate information [9] due to two main reasons. Firstly, because of the users’ willingness to upload and share their personal and intimate lives on these platforms, and secondly, because of the users’ voluntary consent to the terms and conditions of the platforms which normally state the openness and the public nature of the networks [10]. Consequently, although social media users expect a reasonable level of privacy on social media platforms, this expectation is easily undermined since they have voluntarily joined these platforms, accepting that platforms’ rules even when the settings could threaten their right  to privacy. Furthermore, while users may expect different levels of privacy from each option available to communicate and interact within the networks, from the point of view of the owner companies, social media platforms are public spheres where their users can freely communicate with each other and whose data, information, and shared content can be openly accessed and used. The concerns that arise from this lack of consensus are clear; when and how would it be morally justified for the intelligence community to access, store, and analyse the personal data of social media users? 

Social media has created an online society where people can communicate, interact, and share information even on a broader scale than the real world would ever allow. However, this online society affects their physical reality, threatening the security, defence, and safety of the public and private international actors. Consequently, social media has become an incredibly important issue of concern for the intelligence community and security agencies as it appears to be the most innovative and initially effective tool to understand social interactions and dynamics. However, SOCMINT entails a great challenge as it requires access by default to the private information of social media users, affecting the legitimacy of the intelligence community and the morality and legality of carrying out SOCMINT surveillance. The ambiguous nature of social media platforms as public private-owned spaces affects the consideration of the information shared and accessed as publicly available and its protection by the society and the individuals’ legitimate expectations of privacy. No  legislation has been able to offer an adequate delimitation of social media spaces to restrict the collection, use and exploitation of social media private information by private and public actors. However, what is clear is that SOCMINT is intrinsically connected with a reality, social media, that provokes more challenges than certainties and as a consequence, SOCMINT has to deal with great concerns in relation to the individuals’ rights and the legitimacy of the security interest.

[1] Vrist Rønn, K., & Obelitz Søe, S. (2019). Is social media intelligence private? Privacy in public and the nature of social media intelligence. Intelligence and National Security, 34(3), 363-378. doi:10.1080/02684527.2019.1553701[2] Liviu, A., Anamaria, C., Codruta, R., & Nicolae, M. (2015). Social Media Intelligence: Opportunities and Limitations. CES Working Papers, VII(2A), p. 506
[3] Edwards, L., & Urquhart, L. (2016). Privacy in Public Spaces: What Expectations of Privacy do we have in Social Media Intelligence? International Journal of Law and Information Technology, Autumn,p. 279-310
[4] Privacy International. (n.d.). Social Media Intelligence. Retrieved from Privacy International:
[5] Edwards, L., & Urquhart, L. (2016).
[6] Gibson, S. (2004). Open Source Intelligence. The RUSI Journal, 149(1), p.16-22. doi:10.1080/03071840408522977
[7] Omand, D., Bartlett, J., & Miller, C. (2012). Introducing Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT). Intelligence and National Security, 27(6), 801-823. doi:10.1080/02684527.2012.716965
[8] Edwards, L., & Urquhart, L. (2016).
[9] Privacy International. (n.d.).
[10] Edwards, L., & Urquhart, L. (2016). 

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