BP #6: Social Media Sites Sell Data to be Used for Government Surveillance


Article Summary

This article covered the emerging problem in the digital world of social media giants, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, selling their user data to startups who then sell it to police and other government agencies. This user data can include a surprising amount of personal information, such as photos, friends lists, birthdays, education level, gender, race, and location.

The data-selling company discussed in this particular article is a chicago-based startup known as Geofeedia. Geofeedia’s website describes them as an internet marketing company that analyzes and predicts trends in the digital market, however, it has been discovered that the company has extended its clientele to government authorities hoping to keep a closer eye on citizens. Spokespeople from all three social media companies have stated that Geofeedia has been using their user data improperly and have since cut ties with the company. Many believe more needs to be done in order to avoid these types of issues in the future.

Ethical Analysis

It is clear to see that there are several ethical issues brought up in this article. How much information, if any, should be sold for profit to government officials? By using pubic accounts, are we giving up our rights to decide who has access to that information? According to the article, one of the main purposes police and other government authorities were purchasing this user data was to more easily search and monitor public protests and rallies–specifically in minority groups. This raises an even larger question: is the government abusing its power to discriminate against select groups of people?

This article can be easily related to many of the readings on ethics we have discussed so far. However, the reading that is the most closely related to this issue is John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness. In his account, he talks about the “veil of ignorance,” which is a hypothetical mechanism that would filter out accidental or inherent biases when deciding what is just and unjust. Rawls outlines two main principles he believes must be adhered to when analyzing practices and policies:

“First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” (Rawls 227).

It would seem that the police agencies failed to employ the veil of ignorance when deciding to utilize user data to monitor accounts, since they do so with the intent of locating and potentially shutting down legal, public protests. These practices only benefit the government authorities, and create an immense disadvantage to the black citizens and other minorities, who desperately rely on public protests to voice their opinions and ignite change.



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