DC’s Social Media Surveillance: Privacy vs. Customer Service Considerations

by on November 29, 2012 · 0 comments

As I noted in an addendum to my previous post, less than an hour after I posted an essay about how the District of Columbia’s subsidy deal with LivingSocial was potentially set to unravel, I received a call from two representatives of the D.C. Mayor’s office asking me to clarify a few aspects of the deal. The tone and substance of the call was courteous and profession from the start and I told them I would be happy to post a quick update to my essay letting readers know of the points that they wanted stressed.

After I did so, however, I kept thinking how strange it was that I received such a quick response from the Mayor’s office about my little post. After all, I can’t imagine that the Technology Liberation Front is on the top of their morning reading list! I just figured that someone in the Mayor’s office probably had a Google Alert set up that caught it.  But then, as luck would have it, I was reading through the Wall Street Journal at lunch and came across a story entitled, “In D.C., Social-Media Surveillance Pays Off” by Sarah Portlock. She reports that:

The local government in the nation’s capital is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a startup to gather comments on Twitter, Facebook and other online message boards as well as the government’s own website. The data help form a letter grade for the bureaucracies that handle drivers licenses, building permits and the like. These social-media analytics services are already common for businesses such as restaurants and hotel chains that want to go beyond the comment cards most customers ignore. The D.C. experiment suggests governments are beginning to mirror the private sector in seeking real-time unvarnished feedback.

The D.C. government apparently has a 2-year $670,000 contract with newBrandAnalytics, Inc. to gather social media feedback and insights about the District.  So, I figure that’s how the folks in the D.C. Mayor’s office stumbled upon my little rant. I had posted a link to my essay on both Twitter and Google+ and they probably got an immediate report back about it.

In any event, that got me wondering about how people are going to respond to this sort of “surveillance” of social media sites and activities by governments.

I can imagine that some people will feel it’s “creepy” and suggest it violates some privacy norms. But the sort of “surveillance” happening here isn’t the typical “law-and-order” stuff. What we’re talking here about is really just the same sort of customer service efforts that many private sector companies undertake regularly. Like those private companies, the District is interested in getting feedback about how it’s doing its job. The Journal article quotes Nicholas Majett, head of the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, saying: “Knowing that every day you’re going to get a report about how you’re doing, that actually puts you on your toes and makes sure you’re doing the best possible job.”

In that sense, I applaud the District’s effort to gather impressions and insights from social media sites and use them to improve their public service record. (Of course, I’m of the mind that the District government is doing far more than it needs to and that many of its licensing and regulatory processes, for example, should be completely abolished or privatized. I’m also not sure that the system is worth $670,000 of taxpayer money.)

About the only way I could imagine any of this raising privacy concerns is if the District was gathering these social media insights, matching them up with other databases they have access to, and then using that information to somehow intimidate citizens or deny them some sort of service. It’s always easy to conjure up privacy boogeyman stories like that, but until there is any evidence that social media insights are being used in some nefarious way, I’m not too worried about what the District is doing here.

Going forward, however, it will certainly be interesting to see what happens when government “customer service” efforts such as these grow more sophisticated and come into conflict with certain privacy expectations. While I’m not of the mind that you really have much of a reasonable expectation of privacy on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, I can imagine that many people are going to be freaked out if they start getting regular emails, tweets, texts, or even phone calls from government officials responding to complaints that were written just moments prior on their favorite social media sites.

Of course, these efforts are also worth monitoring to see if they actually do anything to help improve government service / responsiveness. If these efforts can make my DMV experience even moderately more tolerable, I would probably consider them a success!

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