On Wednesday, Rob Price published a nice scoop about a San Francisco marketing agency that had been slurping up millions of public posts from Instagram and selling it to clients. As a side effect, the company — which is called HYP3R, because San Francisco — took countless Instagram stories that were supposed to disappear after 24 hours and effectively made them permanent, storing them in a database and then renting it out to brands.
All of this is against Instagram’s terms of service, though the company didn’t notice it until Price brought it to their attention. I’m told that the practice was not particularly uncommon — one tipster told me yesterday that many marketing tech companies sell services that let brands see what people are saying about them on Instagram and other social networks. Scraping the web for commercial purposes is as old as the web itself — but as more Americans grow more concerned about privacy issues, practices like HYP3R’s are making us uncomfortable.
And as it turns out, marketing tech companies aren’t the only organizations who want to scrape social data for their own purposes. For example, there’s the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Here are Jeff Horwitz and Dustin Volz in the Wall Street Journal today:
The FBI is soliciting proposals from outside vendors for a contract to pull vast quantities of public data from Facebook, Twitter and other social media “to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests.” The request was posted last month, weeks before a series of mass murders shook the country and led President Trump to call for social-media platforms to do more to detect potential shooters before they act. The deadline for bids is Aug. 27.
As described in the solicitation, it appears that the service would violate Facebook’s ban against the use of its data for surveillance purposes, according to the company’s user agreements and people familiar with how it seeks to enforce them.
News of the FBI’s interest in Facebook comes in the same week that the president called on social networks to build tools for identifying potential mass murderers before they act. And across the government, there appears to be growing consensus that social networks should become partners in surveillance with the government.
But so far, as the Journal story illustrates, the government’s approach has been incoherent. On one hand, it fines Facebook $5 billion for violating users’ privacy; on the other, it outlines a plan to potentially store all Americans’ public posts in a database for monitoring purposes.
It seems like we should probably only do one of those things.