Government Social Media Spying Powers_ 50 countries ranked on social media surveillance copy

Social media often provides a window into our private lives, personal communications, and individual thoughts.

However, our latest research of 50 countries finds that every country has some kind of online government access to social media accounts. Not only that, all but one has access to private communications (and many without reasonable cause for concern).

With the latest news that the FBI is spending millions on software that enables widespread social media surveillance, is it time we started being more careful about the information we share on these platforms?

What access does the government have to your data through online surveillance? Are they only able to see what you post publicly or can they scroll through all of your private communications? And what judicial oversight is required for this surveillance, if any?

Our study of the top 50 countries by GDP finds that all countries have some kind of social media surveillance in place. Plus, the majority employ invasive practices. And, while this includes the usual suspects, the likes of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US are scaling up their invasive practices and are at risk of severely violating citizens’ privacy.

We assessed each country based on the following:

  • Does the government monitor public posts only?
  • Do they have access to technology that enables automated searching through citizens’ public and/or private posts?
  • Do they monitor without reasonable cause for concern?
  • Are there any safeguards in place to protect citizens’ social media posts?
  • Can they take over someone’s account?
  • Can they modify, add, copy, or delete data?

Our study focuses on covert and mass surveillance tactics used by governments (often through police or security agencies) to monitor social media platforms. It doesn’t cover the physical access to social media accounts should they seize a phone in a criminal investigation, or whether they can gain access by going through the social media company.

Countries with the most government social media surveillance

1. Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, Vietnam, and Yemen = 2/21

If we say social media users in the aforementioned countries are subject to the most invasive surveillance, none are perhaps too much of a surprise.

With widespread surveillance technology in place and few, if any, safeguards surrounding social media practices, all of these countries seriously encroach on citizens’ privacy across these networks. This often leads to self-censorship and a search for safer alternatives (although these are frequently banned/censored, too).

2. Russia and Thailand = 3/21

Russia and Thailand are only slightly better when it comes to their surveillance practices. Thailand does have some provisions in place when it comes to what can be monitored (warrants are generally required but there are loopholes that are often exploited) and Russia has some safeguards for privacy on social media channels–but, again, these are frequently violated and disregarded. This censorship and surveillance in Russia has only heightened in recent months, including blocking Facebook in its entirety and the enactment of a law that attempts to silence anyone spreading “false information” about the invasion of Ukraine.

3. Turkey and Poland = 4/21

Turkey has widespread and invasive surveillance but does have some provisions within its legislation that provide some protection–albeit inadequate.

Poland has a surveillance law that enables security agencies to use “covert” methods and the tools available to them. They don’t always have to submit an application to carry out this surveillance, either. This leaves users’ social media accounts open to abuse and is why the Polish secret services and their surveillance powers have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Following numerous complaints, the ECtHR demanded that the Polish government explain the surveillance practices of its intelligence agencies. Questions remain around the lack of control over government surveillance.

4. Australia = 5/21

Australia is perhaps the biggest surprise within the top five worst countries for social media surveillance.

However, in a recent amendment to its law, it gave police the power to not only take over users’ social media accounts but to also “disrupt data by modifying, adding, copying or deleting data in order to frustrate the commission of serious offences online.”

As our research has found, this is a unique provision within a law, especially when one considers the fact that this can also be conducted without a warrant in certain cases. By granting warrantless hacking powers to law enforcement, the Australian government is seriously encroaching on citizens’ privacy.

While many of the other worst offenders are so due to lack of regulation and judicial oversight, Australia’s clear and precise inclusion of this within law paves the way for more surveillance across these platforms and will likely increase self-censorship across the country.

5. Hong Kong, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and South Korea = 6/21

Each of these countries has some safeguards within its laws/procedures but fail to adequately protect social media users from widespread and invasive surveillance. For example, in South Korea, access to private communications is only permitted with a warrant but certain investigative agencies and circumstances are allowed access without. Not only that, but users were also subject to mass surveillance throughout the pandemic and censorship software is known to be installed on under-19s mobile phones.

Countries with the least government social media surveillance

While we cannot congratulate any country on having zero social media surveillance, there are some countries that are worth commending for their protection of citizens’ privacy on these channels.

Our least-surveilled country on social media is the Czech Republic. With no evidence of any social media tools or widespread surveillance, users here are generally free to enjoy freedom of speech across these platforms without the worry of being caught up in police investigations.

The Czech Republic is closely followed by Switzerland, Finland, Austria, and Portugal, where no evidence of social media surveillance tools for automated searching through posts are found. All of these countries have good safeguards and privacy protections in place, too.

Belgium also enjoys relatively good freedom, despite some technology being rumored for specific events (e.g. protests). The tool would allow for automated keyword searches across open sources but would have to be used within strict guidelines. Nevertheless, once the technology is up and running, there remains the risk of increasing surveillance.

What tools and tactics do governments use for social media surveillance?

As we have seen, a large number of countries have access to technology or utilize techniques that enable them to carry out automated screening of content. Sometimes, this is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) where the data captured/reviewed is publicly available.

These tools and techniques often use keywords to search out data that may be of interest to local law enforcement, e.g. conversations about an upcoming protest or slanderous comments about government leaders. Or, they may involve manually reviewing the results of users’ searches, what type of content they post and react to, or going through the content within public or private groups. Tools also enable the scraping of a web page so it can be replicated for the person who’s reviewing the content.

In other cases, however, more invasive tools may be used. These fall under Social media intelligence (SOCMINT) techniques and technologies that allow agencies to monitor a whole host of content, e.g. images and messages posted, and person and group interactions. This data may be public and private. For example, a Facebook post may be publicly available to view but it may also disclose the user’s location.

Equally, some tools use artificial intelligence to identify criminal behavior before a crime is committed. This is the case in Canada, for example. In a recent contract with Babel Street, it was found that the tool enables mass online surveillance through the tracking, analyzing, and translating of online communications.

Babel Street is also the company that won a million-dollar contract with the FBI. Worth up to $27 million, this contract began late last month (March 30) and is, as the FBI states, to search through publically-available information. While the information returned may be in the public sphere, the mass surveillance this technology enables and the lack of oversight when it comes to how the FBI uses this technology is of huge concern for privacy advocates. For example, the FBI’s guidelines even allow for the tech to be used in ‘assessments,’ i.e. before someone has technically committed a crime.

These kinds of tools that allow for automated data collection pose a great risk to citizens’ privacy because of the vast amounts of data they give law enforcement access to. There is also a huge risk that some of the content and profiles monitored and reviewed through this surveillance is that of innocent members of the public who haven’t and are not about to commit a crime.

Furthermore, even when the tools and manual covert surveillance of open-source data is carried out, there is a huge gray area over what is and isn’t private on these platforms. Even though someone may post publicly, they will still expect a level of privacy when doing so.

The lack of transparency around how these tools are used is also a growing issue. In many cases, it is unclear just what is involved in the social media surveillance tactics.

For example, the Met Police in the UK has a unit called Project Alpha Team that uses a secret database called ‘Operation Alpha.’ This database records a number of categories of data (the categories recorded increased from 16 to 34 in the last year) and it is known to gather public and private data from social media accounts. The Met Police hasn’t disclosed how many social media accounts have been tracked so far, nor does it reveal what information it collates.

In many of the countries with invasive technology in place, it is also unclear whether they can modify the data (hence why many countries are scored as possibly having the potential to do this through the tools in their possession). This isn’t the case in Australia, however. As we’ve noted, Australia’s new surveillance law enables police to take control of social media accounts so they can gather data for an investigation and “disrupt” the data by deleting, adding, copying, or modifying it. While it provides police with precise powers, there is a lack of clarity as to what they can do as part of an investigation.

For example, as Angus Murray, Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia’s Policy Team, states, “In theory, at least, the police could put something like child exploitation images onto your computer. While something like this is not the intention of the bill, there are also no significant safeguards against it.”

What does the future hold for social media users and surveillance?

While widespread surveillance across social media in some countries isn’t a surprise, our study highlights the growing prevalence of monitoring tools that have the ability to enable invasive surveillance techniques within many countries around the world.

Australia is a prime example of how government spying powers can be taken to an extreme. And while clear legislation may ensure things are carried out within the guidelines, it also gives the go-ahead for such invasive practices.

A number of countries are close to following in Australia’s footsteps, too. This includes the UK, the US, France, and Canada.

In the UK, “covert” methods through the likes of artificial intelligence (AI) are used for real-time social media monitoring. And police are known to carry out bulk surveillance with a worrying lack of transparency in certain cases, which raises concerns as to whether or not accounts that aren’t involved in criminal activity are being tracked.

As we’ve already noted, the same mass surveillance with little transparency is also seen in the US, particularly within border control practices. With federal, state, and local law enforcement having access to a range of tools that enable them to carry out social media monitoring, there should be far more written regulation than there is. The lack of oversight can lead to abuse, which was something witnessed within the Los Angeles Police, United States Post Office Inspection Service (USPIS), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

LAPD officers were recently found to have been ordered to note the social media accounts of every person they stopped. USPIS has just been found to have illegally authorized blanket keyword searches (e.g. “destroy,”  “attack,” and “protest”) across social media, which extended its investigations way beyond cases that are solely connected to mail or the post office (which is all it is authorized to do). And the DHS is currently being sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) because of its use of social media to spy on immigrants without providing any transparency on the program in place.

Meanwhile, in Canada, social media monitoring has been used to track people in a “proactive” method to try and identify threats before a crime is committed. And, in France, social media surveillance has been used to detect tax fraud.

All of the above examples demonstrate the worrying surveillance tactics that governments and law enforcement agencies can practice on social media platforms. Plus, as social media use continues to expand and technology grows at an exponential rate, legislation is unlikely to keep up. Or, as in Australia’s case, it is introduced quietly to provide sweeping and invasive powers to authorities.

Correlation between crime rates and percentage of population on social media

But, as the above chart shows, there tends to be less crime in countries with more social media users. This begs the question as to whether more surveillance powers in these countries are necessary or justified?

Methodology and scoring

We searched through the top 50 countries by GDP to see what evidence there was of social media surveillance and what legislation was in place to govern the use of surveillance tactics and/or tools. We then used this data to score each country based on the below:

Do governments monitor public posts only?

0 = No. Widespread and invasive surveillance conducted with little oversight or safeguards.
1 = No. Some regulations to prevent widespread abuse, but ongoing surveillance may encroach on private accounts of persons not suspected of having committed a crime.
2 = Only access private accounts in certain and specific cases – e.g. in the investigation of a crime and with strict judicial authority.
3 = Only have access to public posts.
4 = Only have access to public posts and under strict regulations (e.g. constant surveillance is not permitted).
5 = No monitoring.

It’s important to note here that some private data, e.g. private messages sent on the platform, won’t be available to law enforcement even with invasive intelligence tools. They would likely need to contact the social media provider to gain access to this content. Our focus in this section is on whether or not the intelligence may infiltrate private groups and/or have access to technology that covers public and/or private data.

Do they have access to technology that enables them to search through citizens’ public and/or private posts?

0 = Yes. Tools used for widespread and invasive surveillance conducted with little oversight or safeguards.
1 = Yes. Some regulations to prevent widespread abuse but ongoing surveillance conducted through these tools.
2 = Yes. Access to public and private but with regulation/safeguards in place – or some technology but not enough for widespread surveillance.
3 = Yes but only to search public posts.
4 = Yes but only to search public posts in specific cases.
5 = No/nothing known.

Do they monitor without reasonable cause for concern?

0 = Widespread and invasive surveillance conducted with little oversight or safeguards.
1 = Yes. Constant monitoring is known to occur (or monitoring pre-crime/without a warrant in some cases) but there are some safeguards to try and limit abuse. Or vague details surrounding the law/procedures.
2 = No. Strict guidelines as to when monitoring can take place.

Are there any safeguards in place to protect citizens’ social media posts?

0 = No. Citizens’ privacy is frequently exploited and there are few, if any, safeguards.
1 = Some but these are often exploited and abuse of their privacy is known.
2 = Yes. General right to privacy but the surveillance techniques and tools in place put this at risk.
3 = Yes. Strict guidelines and protocols in place to safeguard privacy.

Can the government/police take over someone’s account?

0 = Yes and without judicial oversight.
1 = Nothing specific mentioned in the law, but access to tools and constant surveillance means this is likely. Or, despite some safeguards, there are cases of hacking/taking over accounts and abuse of power.
2 = Nothing specific mentioned in the law, but access to tools means this may happen in certain circumstances.
3 = Nothing known.

Can they modify, add, copy, or delete data?

0 = Yes and without judicial oversight.
1 = Nothing specific mentioned in the law, but access to tools and constant surveillance means this is likely. Or, despite some safeguards, there are cases of hacking/taking over accounts and abuse of power.
2 = Nothing specific mentioned in the law, but access to tools means this may happen in certain circumstances.
3 = Nothing known.

Data researcher: Rebecca Moody


For a full list of sources, click here.