Is this data­base a big­ger threat than Face­book?

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - MATT LASLO Matt Laslo is a vet­eran con­gres­sional re­porter and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity.

The use of al­go­rithms to track peo­ple’s on­line move­ments has gen­er­ated lots of dis­cus­sion in Wash­ing­ton in re­cent days. But while the head­lines have fo­cused on Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg and just what his plat­form knows about us, a lesser-known track­ing story could prove an even greater threat to the bedrock prin­ci­ples of the na­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally-man­dated free press.

As Mr Zucker­berg ar­gued, no one should rush to judge­ment while we’re fig­ur­ing much of this out in real time. How­ever, the early signs are alarm­ing. On April 3, a so­lic­i­ta­tion on the gov­ern­ment web­site fed­bi­ sug­gested that the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity (DHS) is on its own fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion. Only the fish in this case wouldn’t be you, your fam­ily and neigh­bours, they’re hun­dreds of thou­sands of news sources: 290,000 to be ex­act.

DHS is search­ing for a con­trac­tor to build a “Me­dia Mon­i­tor­ing” sys­tem with “24/7 ac­cess to a pass­word-pro­tected, me­dia in­flu­encer data­base, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists, edi­tors, cor­re­spon­dents, so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers, blog­gers etc” so they can “iden­tify any and all me­dia cov­er­age re­lated to the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity or a par­tic­u­lar event”.

This might ap­pear to be stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure for any busi­ness or agency want­ing to track me­dia cov­er­age of its ac­tiv­i­ties. How­ever, given Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s hos­til­ity to­ward the me­dia, some me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions and com­men­ta­tors fear that the data­base could have a more sin­is­ter pur­pose. Per­haps omi­nously, the “state­ment of work” notes that the suc­cess­ful con­trac­tor must have the “abil­ity to ex­port the con­tact de­tails of the me­dia in­flu­encers per me­dia list”, along with “any other in­for­ma­tion that could be rel­e­vant”.

For many, this im­me­di­ately con­jures up the spec­tre of J Edgar Hoover tap­ping re­porters’ phones. That’s be­cause the FBI chief was no­to­ri­ous for weapon­is­ing the in­for­ma­tion — in­clud­ing gos­sip, ru­mours and se­cret dossiers — he amassed while main­tain­ing a god­like reign at the bu­reau for a span of some 40 years. Among those he mon­i­tored: Pulitzer Prize-win­ning re­porter David Hal­ber­stam.

Hoover’s legacy right­fully lingers in the hearts and minds of many in the na­tion’s press corps. But this is a new, ever-evolv­ing era of so­cial me­dia, so it seems that gov­ern­ment and me­dia watch­dog groups need to ex­er­cise more cau­tion than the para­noid Hoover ever proved ca­pa­ble of em­brac­ing.

The gov­ern­ment, just like the rest of us, has mostly free, though never un­fet­tered, ac­cess to the na­tion’s jour­nal­ists. I’m a re­porter, but I’m also a pro­fes­sor in my “free time”. And teach­ing at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity’s Mas­ter’s in Com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­gramme this se­mes­ter, I learned, to my sur­prise, from a guest speaker who show­cased her com­pa­nies “in­flu­encers” data­base, that my per­sonal in­for­ma­tion is even avail­able to some high priced me­di­afo­cused clients.

So if some lob­by­ist can pay to find my per­sonal data, then surely the gov­ern­ment should be able to track me and any sto­ries of mine that deal with na­tional se­cu­rity. That would be easy to swal­low for the press corps and other op­po­nents of this newly-hatched, or at least newly-re­ported, plan — if only the track record of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was dif­fer­ent. But it’s not.

Be­fore he en­tered the White House, Mr Trump him­self called for re­in­stat­ing some ver­sion of the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts of 1798, which played a key role in lim­it­ing the na­tion’s sec­ond pres­i­dent, John Adams, to an em­bar­rass­ing sin­gle term.

Like Adams, Mr Trump’s calls for cur­tail­ing the ex­pan­sive grav­i­tas of the First Amend­ment didn’t stop on the trail. In the White House, Mr Trump has em­braced the rhetor­i­cal atom bombs dropped by his for­mer chief strate­gist and alt-right whis­perer Steve Ban­non, who dubbed the press corps “the en­emy”. The pres­i­dent has gone a step fur­ther, and has con­tin­u­ously called for over­haul­ing the na­tion’s li­bel laws so that it’s eas­ier to sue re­porters over dis­agree­able, even if true, sto­ries.

Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence also brings bag­gage with him on the topic of the free press. While gover­nor of In­di­ana, he tried to start a state-run news, well, pro­pa­ganda re­ally, agency that was stopped in its tracks when de­tails of the crack­pot plan emerged.

Maybe if Mr Trump and his alt-right min­ions toned down their rhetoric and stopped paint­ing the me­dia as their per­pet­ual en­emy, then it would be eas­ier for jour­nal­ists to ac­cept the gov­ern­ment’s de­sire to up­date its sys­tems to meet the de­mands of be­ing po­lit­i­cally en­gaged in this so­cial me­dia-era.

The in­nate ten­sion in this case is that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment needs to up­date all of its elec­tronic sys­tems in this hy­per­con­nected time pe­riod, while the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has only sown dis­cord in the fab­ric of to­day’s new so­cial com­pact. Like Face­book, it needs to re­new that trust be­fore the press corps and the pub­lic can trust that J. Edgar Hoover truly re­mains in his grave.

Un­til that faith is re­stored — or even es­tab­lished — it will be hard for many peo­ple to stom­ach a fed­eral gov­ern­ment whose chief de­cries his press cov­er­age and at­tempts to un­der­cut and sow dis­cord be­tween the pub­lic and the na­tion’s jour­nal­ists. Un­til Mr Trump truly em­braces the First Amend­ment and the vi­tal role the Fourth Es­tate plays in the United States there’s re­ally no rea­son any think­ing jour­nal­ist would want this ad­min­is­tra­tion to track them that closely.

Right now, most of us likely trust Mr Zucker­berg and Face­book with our vi­tal in­for­ma­tion more than Mr Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. And be­lieve me, many of us are du­bi­ous of Face­book and have our pri­vacy set­tings fine-tuned on that plat­form. It’d be a shame if we all went in dig­i­tal hid­ing know­ing that the gov­ern­ment is on a li­bel hunt. But only one per­son can change that trend. And his last name doesn’t start with a Z.


This Nov 20, 2017 file photo shows lo­gos of US on­line so­cial me­dia and so­cial net­work­ing ser­vice Face­book.

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