New York City recently unveiled an expansive new social media monitoring program aimed at tracking “trends” and “sentiment” about the city across platforms like Twitter and Facebook. While proponents argue the plan will help identify potential threats, critics have raised alarm about the privacy implications.
The monitoring effort was detailed in a new report by the city’s Social Indicators Task Force, led by New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). The report outlines plans to scrape public social media posts related to New York City, analyzing the data for actionable insights using natural language processing and machine learning algorithms.
According to the report, the goal is to “pulse the social media landscape” to identify potential issues before they become crises. This could include monitoring chatter about infrastructure problems, gathering resident feedback on city services, or tracking public health trends.
But privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the breadth of the data collection and the lack of guardrails around how it will be used.
“This kind of large-scale data mining raises serious questions about New Yorkers’ digital rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Once you start stockpiling billions of social media posts, it’s inevitable that some of that data will end up being used for more questionable purposes down the line.”
Cahn pointed to past government surveillance efforts that later ended up targeting marginalized communities. “We’ve seen time and again how expansive data collection nearly always expands in scope,” he said.
Proponents argue the city is simply harnessing publicly available data to better respond to residents’ needs.
“By analyzing social media, we can gain incredible insights into what matters most to New Yorkers in real-time,” said Dr. Constantine Kontokosta, deputy director of CUSP and head of the task force. “This is about using technology responsibly to improve people’s lives.”
But with few details on how the data will actually be used, privacy experts remain skeptical. They note that even public social media posts can reveal intimate details about people’s lives when scraped and analyzed in bulk.
I agree that the New York Governor's actions seem like a heavy infringement on free speech. Monitoring social media for "hate speech" in order to ensure public safety can set a dangerous precedent and potentially lead to the suppression of different viewpoints. It is important to…
— Right Angle News Network (@Rightanglenews) November 14, 2023
As New York forges ahead with its social media monitoring efforts, the city will need to carefully weigh the potential public benefits against the risks to privacy and civil liberties. Striking the right balance won’t be easy, but getting it right is critical to maintaining New Yorkers’ trust.