How Instagram Cost a Congressman His Job and Other Social Media Horror Stories

April 24, 2015

 

**First appeared on kfoxtv.com**

 

Spoiler alert, I’m about to ruin the plot of a recent episode of Modern Family.

 

Call it a sign of the times. A recent episode of the hit ABC comedy Modern Family was told completely through the screen of one of the character’s laptops. Over the course of 22 minutes, viewers watch as the mother, Claire, attempts to track down her eldest daughter Haley, who wasn’t answering her phone.

 

After a little bit of digging, Claire was able to track down exactly where her daughter’s cell phone was located and figure out who Haley was last with. Claire ended up convincing herself that her daughter had run off to Las Vegas to elope with the family babysitter. Comically, as episodes of Modern Family usually end, it had been just a big misunderstanding when Claire discovered that Haley was at home sleeping the whole time and left her cell phone in the babysitter’s car. As amusing as this episode was, it also shines light on just how far technology has come and how little the average American understands the implications of it.

 

The fact that an entire show can be told through a computer screen without losing the attention of viewers demonstrates how entwined technology has become with American daily life. Gone are the days where questions like ‘who invented the hot dog?’ go unanswered. Now, everything is just a click, tap or app away. The answer, by the way, is Charles Feltman, who invented the ballpark delicacy in 1871, and yes I Googled it.

 

But, to steal a line from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. The threat of an eternal digital footprint is real. Something as innocent as a picture of your food or the concert you attended can come back to haunt you years down the road.

 

Just ask U.S. Representative Aaron Schock, who is facing a House Ethics Committee investigation after the Associated Press reported on his lavish spending at the expense of the taxpayers. So how did the AP’s intrepid journalists track the Illinois congressman’s habits? It wasn’t some secret source like Deep Throat who divulged the information to the reporters. No, it was much more simple than that. The AP tracked his Instagram account then cross-references it with his expenses and flight records.

 

While Rep. Schock was posting pictures of himself and his interns at concerts or jet-setting across the country in private airplanes, the AP was building a profile of this Tea Party darling’s lavish expenses. As AP reporters Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun put it:

 

“The AP tracked Schock's reliance on the aircraft partly through the congressman's penchant for uploading pictures and videos of himself to his Instagram account. The AP extracted location data associated with each image then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock's office and campaign records.”

 

It turns out that Rep. Schock took at least a dozen flights on donors’ airplanes worth more than $40,000 since 2011. AP also found that Schock treated his interns to a sold out Katy Perry concert in June and paid a massage parlor for a fundraising event. In fact, he has some of the highest expenses among his peers. All of this on taxpayer dime, all of the money went to people who had supported him during campaigns with financial contributions and all of it caught on social media.

 

Now, the 33-year-old congressman, who was a rising star in the GOP, faces serious questions from his fellow congress members and also his constituents. Schock has resigned from his position, no fewer than five of his former staff members have been subpoenaed to testify about his expenses and one of his big campaign donor has filed a class action lawsuit against him for fraud and racketeering. Schock could even face jail time and all of the evidence the jury needs would be access to the former Representative’s Instagram account.

 

Being a journalist these days has never been more convenient because of the leniency the public has with its posts. Tracking down the family or ex-boyfriend or colleagues of a person who has been arrested is easier than ever before, to the point where going out and knocking on doors like old school journalists almost isn’t necessary. Almost.

 

Quite often in newsrooms I’ve worked in, when word comes in that a person has died or been arrested, we have the identity of the person before the police release it. However, we choose not to put that information out in newscasts until 1) It’s been confirmed by three sources and 2) the family has been informed. There’s nothing worse than finding something out about your loved one from the news. Often times, we in the newsroom know much more than that. We have also tracked down family and friends and have gotten a sense of their state of mind through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Pintrest and other posts.

 

This is the blessing and the curse of the eternal digital footprint. Something so innocent as a picture of food, which I am absolutely guilty of as well, can be used to track your movements.

 

Tech giants like Google and Facebook even admit that they build digital profiles of users to better cater the Internet to their interests. Do you think it’s a coincidence that those boots you were ogling popped up in an ad on the side of your Gmail account? Or how about the hotel deals popping up for Boston after you bought a plane ticket? Nope.

 

Last year, however, something truly remarkable happened in the European Union. A man fought in court for the right to have all copies of a story that had been posted about him on the Internet years ago deleted. AND. HE. WON. This could have monumental implications on the way the World Wide Web works moving forward.

 

The man’s name is Mario Costeja Gonzalez. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that his story, the one he was trying so hard to have erased from history, is now etched in it forever as a result of this landmark court case.

 

Costeja is a 58-year-old Spanish lawyer and calligrapher who took Google to court over information posted in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia from 1998 saying his house had been repossessed due to a tax debt. Costeja argued, first to a Spanish court and then to the Court of Justice of the European Union, that the information was no longer relevant and that the tax dispute had been resolved years ago.

 

The court agreed and the tech giant was forced to remove the information. Since Google conducts 90 percent searches, the information is essentially removed from the Internet, though not totally.

 

The May 2013 ruling has much more broad implications than one man’s desire to have his slate wiped clean. The ruling is as such:

 

“Individuals have the right - under certain conditions - to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of the data processing.”

 

The court went on to say that a person whose request meets those conditions can have their argument assessed on a case-by-case basis and then removed from the Internet permanently, even if the physical servers the tech companies use to store data are not located in the EU.

 

The basis of the ruling comes from the EU’s 1995 Data Protection Directive that works to ensure reasonable privacy for Internet users.

 

This ruling could have widespread implications for the future. If, for instance, a mother doesn’t want her children to be able to dig too deep into her past, she may be able to force Internet companies to erase it with this ruling. This could be a good thing because, realistically, who wants to imagine their mother as a sex-driven teenager who maybe had a few too many run-ins with the law in the past but who now drives five under the speed limit in her maroon minivan and obeys all traffic signs?

 

On the other hand, if someone is, say, planning to run for office years into the future and decides he or she needs to start erasing things from the Internet now so as to not ruin his or her chances of beating out someone with a more squeaky clean past, that could be quite problematic.

 

In this day and age where pictures of a teenage President Obama smoking cigarettes or participating in campus protests are fair game for political debate, who’s to say what is “inadequate or irrelevant” at this point? Is it possible for something that is considered irrelevant now to become relevant again in the future? What if Mr. Costeja wants to become a tax attorney? Is it then relevant for potential clients to know that, by the way, he had trouble paying taxes in the past as well?

 

In other words, it’s impossible to predict a person’s future intentions or current motivations when deciding what should stay and what should go from the public domain. That is also a massive burden for tech companies to grapple with as they consider deleting data in this Great Information Age.

 

Even if Google and other search enginaes do decide that the information posted about one person is not necessary and should be deleted, there is one entity that will never comply with such a request: the U.S. government.

 

If there is one thing we learned from the Edward Snowden, NSA docu-drop saga it’s this: the National Security Agency has the potential to find out pretty much aanything about anyone who has left a digital footprint and it isn’t afraid to use those powers.

 

The NSA scandal is too big of a beast to tackle in a few paragraphs, but for those who believe the motto that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear consider this: the U.S. tapped the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of America’s closest allies. If the U.S. is willing to do that to a friend, what is it capable of doing to a foe?

 

Artist, essayist and social activist Molly Crabapple has been trying for years to figure out exactly what information the government is storing about her. Crabapple filed a Freedom of Information Act request a few years back with the FBI to find out what information the government has been keeping on her. She has been battling with the agency ever since. Recently, Crabapple tweeted that the FBI disclosed it is keeping 7,526 pages about her. The FBI says it will comb through 750 a month now and pass along the ones it sees fit.

 

Crabapple is not a terrorist. She has no known links to Al Qaeda. She took part in the Occupy Wall Street movement and visited the Guantanamo Bay prison for Vice among other things. Her story demonstrates how much power the Internet holds. She isn’t the only one trying to find out what the government knows about her. A number of journalists and lawyers are also FOIA-ing to find out what the government knows about them.

 

The capability to store page after page on individuals is also growing. In 2013, the media got ahold of the blueprints for the NSA’s new, $1.7 billion data center in Utah. The Bluffdale-based center is one million square feet with 100,000 of that dedicated solely to holding data-storage servers. This place can store so much information they practically had to make up a new system of measurement for it, yottabytes.

 

William Binney, a mathematician turned whistle-blower, told the Guardian that he estimates that the center can store information a rate of 20 terabytes per minute. That’s the equivalent of storing all the data in the Library of Congress each and every minute of the day.

 

That’s not to say that the data capacity of this place will be used to collect information on average Americans, but it sure would be easy.

 

This brings us back to the idea of responsible posting because, again, right now something as simple as a picture of food could have long-term implications whether you know it or not. The more a person posts on the Internet through their various accounts, the more they contribute about their own lives to the information superhighway for anyone to pick up.

 

That includes parents posting pictures or videos of their kids, believing it is adorable and innocent now, though it could hurt those same kids down the road. Posting something on Facebook about your son or daughter singing to Disney’s Frozen is adorable. But, could peers use it against them in the future?

 

This is the internal debate that is essential each and every time you pick up your smart phone to post something on Instagram. This is the debate too few are having when taking their aggressions out on the Internet through derogatory Youtube comments or inappropriate tweets.

 

In the end, your digital life is in your own hands and every time you post something, you put place it into the hands of seven billion others around the world, whether your privacy settings like it or not.

 

Here’s to responsible posting.

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