This story is over 5 years old
Tech by VICE

The NSA's Data Collection Habits Are Trickling Down to Cops and Credit Agencies

More and more, companies, credit bureaus, and cops around the world are vetting people via social media.

by Greg Thomas
Jun 11 2013, 8:50pm
Image via Mike Licht/Flickr

While it's true that the NSA is logging and analyzing our phone calls, emails and possibly our Facebook posts, it's pretty clear that, so far, the agency isn't interested in the average cute-kitten-posting web user. Unless you're a national security threat, your social media activity is more likely of interest to local police, advertisers and credit agencies.

There's no shortage of stories of people posting messages, photos, and videos to their public accounts of wealth, spending habits and whereabouts—or even incriminating evidence of bank robberies and murderous intentions. Authorities around the world have also begun proactively pursuing leads via social media. They'll post mugshots of fugitives, warn people about crime trends, or ask people to keep their eyes peeled for certain suspects.

As interested third parties learn to rake, flag, and analyze our public information, it's the smaller, more localized monitoring-and-analysis operations that could affect us more regularly than the federal government's hold. The NSA is tasked with defending against national threats. Cops and companies, on the other hand, have an interest in altering and interfering with our day-to-day habits and routines.

For example, PayPal, the credit bureau Equifax, and Intuit are investing in tools to parse "unstructured data"—the random crap we spew on Twitter, the images we upload to Pinterest, our LinkedIn profile updates, and the posts we like on Facebook. Unstructured data is said to account for between 80 percent and 90 percent of relevant business information. And as our collection of data continues growing, so will the amount of unstructured data collected, analyzed and used.

On its face, the tactic doesn't appear as intrusive as reading your emails or listening to your phone calls. But when algorithms can extrapolate personal information by linking, say, the wedding photos you posted on Facebook to your credit score, companies won't have to tap your iPhone to know what you're up to—you'll have volunteered the information. 

So far we've seen a lot of obvious and simple manifestations of this kind of data use: People holler about beating someone up or vandalizing a car and cops do the basic due diligence. For example, a 19-year-old posted a YouTube video in December called "Chick Bank robber" in which she brags about stealing a car and then robbing a bank in Nebraska. Sheriffs arrested her soon after.

During the Occupy protests in New York, the NYPD tasked an officer specifically with following Twitter to keep up with the pace of the protests. Meanwhile, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has made tracking criminals—which could be anybody, really—on Facebook. It's a trend that's carrying across the nation, because a public Facebook page doesn't require a warrant to peruse.

The next phase of evolution involves credit agencies verifying information about consumers and merchants. (Startups like Trulioo are already stepping up to help companies with verification via social media data mining.) On one hand, social media offers low-hanging authenticators that can prevent fraud and theft. But that security comes at a cost.

“I think consumers have consistently traded information for convenience,” Bill Ready, CEO of payment processor Braintree, told Bloomberg. “When you start using it to lend and extend credit, that’s where you start getting into privacy concerns.”