AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File
Right now, the Second Amendment is under assault from so many different directions it’s difficult to keep up. It feels like everyone wants to take yet another piece of our right to keep and bear arms.
One of the most supported measures right now are red flag laws. The idea is that you can somehow identify problems early and disarm those individuals before they can kill.
The idea is bogus, but it’s certainly popular enough that there’s a good chance such a law will pass at the federal level.
However, a move by the federal government should raise even more alarm bells.
In early July, the FBI posted a solicitation notice for a “Social Media Alerting Subscription,” which would “acquire the services of a company to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests through a means of online sources.” The request singles out Twitter, Facebook, Instagram “and other social media platforms” for snooping.
Essentially, the FBI is looking for companies to build a tool to comb through “lawfully access[ed]” social media posts and pinpoint possible threats ahead of time. Think of it like a meme-illiterate Facebook-stalking precog from Minority Report.
Although the notice was posted well before this month’s mass shootings, it is easy to see how this system could empower the Red Flag law ideas that have since gained prominence. This kind of “proactive identification” could allow law enforcement to target and even disenfranchise social media users whose posts may have been merely misinterpreted. So let’s call this the Red Flag tool for short.
The FBI’s Red Flag tool statement of objectives provides a glimpse into the agency’s sprawling “social media exploitation” efforts. There are “operations centers and watch floors,” which monitor news and events to create reports for the relevant FBI team. These spur the activation of “fusion centers,” tactical teams which use “early notification, accurate geo-locations, and the mobility” of social media data to issue their own reports. There are also FBI agents in the field, “legal attaches” whose jobs would be much easier with a translation-enabled Red Flag tool. And last are the “command posts,” teams of “power users” assigned to monitor specific large events or theaters of operations.
To be clear, the proposed tool does not seek to access private messages or other hidden data. Rather, it would scrape and rationalize publicly accessible posts. This could be fortuitously combined with other FBI data to build detailed, but possibly inaccurate, portraits of suspected ne’er-do-wells.
That’s a big problem. After all, many people maintain something of a persona on social media. They say things designed to infuriate opponents or make their friends shake their heads at. They’re good people with a warped sense of humor or deep desire to tweak the other side of the political divide.
However, this would put the government looking at these same posts without the context. People looking at this data wouldn’t realize that this person making a comment is the same person who would actually never hurt a human soul. They wouldn’t know the person in question, just a handful of posts that exist completely without the whole picture.
Couple that with red flag laws and how long before someone finds their guns being taken away due to a bad joke or an enraged post on social media? How long before people are losing their gun rights, even temporarily, just because some snooping government agents can’t tell the difference between a post and an actual threat.
And, let’s be honest, one of the warning signs being listed of late is buying guns. Millions of guns are sold each year, mind you, but buying a firearm is considered a warning sign that someone might go and commit a mass shooting.
I can’t imagine why anyone would have a problem with this kind of thing.
Unfortunately, when you get the idea that pre-crime is a good idea, this sort of thing is going to happen. They’ll look at things mass shooters did and start using those as warning signs, but the problem is that many of those “warning signs” are no such thing in and of themselves. Sure, investigate those who make threats to shoot up schools or churches or wherever. Look into those. That’s investigating an actual threat.
Snooping on people’s social media and hoping to justify taking their guns? Not something I’m going to sit idly by and let happen.