A firehose isn’t the province of firefighters anymore. A firehose is the gush of information people provide via the internet, particularly on social media like Twitter and Facebook. Twitter makes a bonanza by selling access to its firehose to interested companies. Recent reports show their sales amounted to $71 million in a single quarter this year. (“Now Trending,” by Jeff John Roberts, Fortune, Dec. 15, 2016 pg. 42.) Unlike Twitter, Facebook makes no charge for its firehose information but they are facing the same ethical question. Are they responsible for how the information is used?
One company, Geofeedia, drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently. The company tracks all sorts of activists and sells the information to countries eager for such information. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are active buyers. As writer Jeff Roberts explains, Geofeedia’s “software blends information from several social media platforms to unearth insights that a single platform would be unable to provide.” (Ibid pg. 42.)
Since the ACLU’s complaint, Twitter and Facebook have barred Geofedia from their pages, but as other social media sites grow, they become magnets for commercial and political spying. Geofedia’s activities exposes the thin line between commercial data collection and data used to assist the covert actions of foreign governments.
The questions grow more serious as social media companies become increasingly adept at collecting data. The original intent may be to improve service to their customers, but Human Rights Watch observes, data collectors have a responsibility “to protect their users as much as possible when the government comes knocking at the door.” (Ibid pg. 42.) I’d add an additional caveat. Users have a responsibility to monitor their output. They are first in the line of defense when it comes to protecting their privacy.