by Neil Thurman


Since Snapchat launched Snap Map in June, the feature has caused controversy, with parents, schools, and charities expressing concern about its use by children.

However, Snap Map is just one of a range of apps that allows social network users to be monitored without their knowledge and with pin-point accuracy.

Indeed some of these apps far exceed Snap Map in their surveillance capabilities, able to track individuals over time and across multiple social networks.

My new report lists a range of such apps—including Echosec, Dataminr, Picodash, and SAM. While Snapchat’s Snap Map is aimed at the public, many of the other social media monitoring apps are aimed at professional users, including the security forces, journalists, and marketeers.

Their use may bring citizens and consumers some benefits. For example, one app, Dataminr, claims to have delivered alerts on shootings and explosions "ahead of major news reports", allowing "emergency responders act quickly to protect the public." Another app, Ground Signal, allows retailers and restaurants to see when social media users post from their premises and "engage" them with "VIP treatment."

The dark side

But there is a darker side to social media surveillance. In my report, I interview journalists who were given an opportunity to experiment with some of these apps professionally. One said that being able to track the locations of individual social media users felt "slightly morally wrong and stalker-esque".

However, such qualms haven’t stopped others from using these tools in ways that could have a chilling effect on legitimate activities, such as trade union membership and peaceful protest. One of the apps my report describes, Geofeedia, was used by hundreds of law enforcements agencies, promoted as giving the police the power to "monitor"—via social media—trade union members, protesters, and activist groups, who the company described as being an "overt threat."

The Geofeedia controversy led to its demise, with social networks refusing to persist in supplying the app with a pipeline of posts for fear of further negative publicity. However, as we've seen with the launch of Snap Map, social media surveillance is not going to go away.

Thanks to a viral video from Nadia Sawalha and the subsequent press coverage, many social media users now know how to activate 'ghost mode' and disappear from their friends' Snap Map.

But how many of us know our other social media posts could be betraying our whereabouts to the thousands of organisations around the world using social media monitoring apps most have never heard of?

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