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Law Enforcement Taps Big Tech Companies for Personal Information: ‘Everything Happens on Facebook’

Photo by Matt Popovich via Unsplash

Law Enforcement Taps Big Tech Companies for Personal Information: ‘Everything Happens on Facebook’

By Movieguide® Staff

New data shows that U.S. law enforcement actively taps large digital databases of personal information created and stored by Big Tech companies when looking for information.

“Data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies shows that law enforcement requests for user information — phone calls, emails, texts, photos, shopping histories, driving routes and more — have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2015. Police are also increasingly savvy about covering their tracks so as not to alert suspects of their interest,” AP reported.

According to AP, in the first half of 2020, over 112,000 data requests were made by state and federal officials of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Facebook, which owns Instagram, made up the majority of disclosures to law enforcement investigations.

Lt. Robert Salter, a supervising police detective in Newport, Rhode Island, said they make daily requests for information from the social media giant.

“Everything happens on Facebook,” Salter said. “The amount of information you can get from people’s conversations online — it’s insane.”

Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that as people begin to rely on Big Tech companies for everyday life, the country also enters “the golden age of government surveillance.”

Despite concerns from digital rights activists at the amount of information available to the government, the data still lies in the hands of Big Tech.

“Our surveillance laws are really based on the idea that if something is really important, we store it at home, and that doesn’t pass the giggle test these days,” Cohn said. “It’s just not true.”

“Most of the companies do play ball,” Salter added. “We can speak with people, get questions answered. They’re usually pretty helpful.”

However, the user is rarely notified on whether their information is being accessed for an investigation. According to AP, some companies are working to provide more transparency to their user base.

“Nearly all big tech companies — from Amazon to rental sites like Airbnb, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and service providers like Verizon — now have teams to respond to such requests and regularly publish reports about how much they disclosed. Many say they work to narrow overly broad requests and reject those that aren’t legally valid,” the AP reported.

Salter maintains that users should have nothing to worry about if what they do on their phones and social media is legal.

“Don’t commit crimes and don’t use your computer and phones to do it,” Slater said. “Judges are not going to sign off on something if we don’t have probable cause to go forward. We’re not going to look at people’s information without having something to go on.”

A third argument, which is made in the recent Netflix Documentary THE SOCIAL DILEMMA, is that Big Tech should not collect or use user data.

Movieguide® previously reported on THE SOCIAL DILEMMA and how director Jeff Orlowski believes that Big Tech already has too much power:

Director Jeff Orlowski notes that the scary part about the story is that it is nonfiction.

“This is like a dystopian matrix that we’re already living in,” Orlowski maintains, “and it’s nonfiction.”

The movie aims to reframe the way consumers view social media.

“What they’re selling is access to our eyeballs,” Orlowski said. “We’re the raw resource… It’s a business model where volume and eyeballs and attention is directly correlated with how much money they make.”

The movie also claims that the most engaging content is misinformation, conspiracy theories, and stories that stoke “outrage-ification.”

“We’ve created a system that biases toward false information,” notes one interview in the movie. “Because false information makes the companies more money than the truth. The truth is boring.”

More recently, Orlowski said that the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots confirm that media is divisive and does not unite people.

“We see how [Jan. 6] just made it so apparent how conspiracy theories, how misinformation, how these platforms that sold us on this idea of connection are actually just increasing tribalism in some ways, and connecting us to like-minded thinking,” Orlowski said. “They are not actually connecting us with the world. They’re distancing us and separating us from reality.”

Orlowski added: “That’s one of the things that has me most frightened is that regardless of the issue that you care about, we’re finding it more and more difficult to take meaningful democratic actions because…basically every issue in the world has been in some way, shape or form polarized through these platforms.”

Orlowski maintains that social media companies need to be held accountable and even regulated.

“I think we need massive regulation,” Orlowski said. “These tools weren’t built for democracy…We, the public, are the thing being mined and manipulated, being converted into money. It turns out that it’s terrible for democracy. We need democracy to fight back. We need our systems, we need our legislators to say, ‘Wait a second. This has gone way too far. We need to change what these things can or can’t do, for the betterment of society.'”