Not necessarily. There's currently no evidence that the government is interested in doing anything with social media other than storing massive amounts of data for later analysis, McCall said, and using a few data points to find people who don't want to be found isn't very likely anyway. “It is extremely unlikely that an al-Qaida terrorist is going to be checking in on Foursquare,” she said. And Dorner didn’t check into his locations on Facebook, either. The idea, however, is to look for patterns of past behavior to predict future behavior.

Protecting Privacy

The thing the public should be concerned about, McCall said, is the general loss of control people have over their data and associated privacy. Even privacy-conscious social media users or non-users can have their information shared by their friends, and once information is out, it's almost impossible to prevent other people from using it. One thing the government isn't allowed to do, McCall said, is collect, maintain or even monitor “protected speech,” something the Department of Homeland Security has testified before Congress saying it wouldn't do. So while information like when “Nick” checks in to his gym might be available to the government (if they're interested), what Nick writes on his Facebook wall about his new boat is supposed to be off-limits.

There are several important factors when it comes to data privacy. What kind of information is being collected? Who is the information being shared with? What is it being used for and how long is it being retained? These are all questions that create uncertainty anda  gray area when it comes to data privacy.

But the gray area only exists because of the way government chooses to form laws around technology, said Andrew Walls, an analyst for Gartner specializing in information security. When it comes to the public's expectations regarding privacy, there is a consensus, he said: Everyone agrees that personal data belongs to the person it relates to, especially if it's password protected or the person is maintaining some other form of access control over it. Despite this, Walls said, there continues to be an imbalance between cultural expectations and what the government deems as suitable in the course of law enforcement.

In the book Privacy on the Line, by American cryptographer Whitfield Diffie, the point is made that whenever a surveillance capability is made available to the U.S. government, it is used to excess. Whether it's body scanners at the airport, thermal imaging scanners in police cars or predictive social media analytics, the government tends to betray the trust of the public in pursuit of security.

And most people even agree that security is needed, Walls said, but finding a way to make sure technology isn't abused is a problem that rarely gets solved. “Every law enforcement group I've dealt with, and I've dealt with a lot of them, make significant efforts in this regard,” Walls said. “They don't want policemen looking up the details of what all their neighbors are doing.” Because every time there's something in the news about a 90-year-old woman being patted down at the airport, or police storming an innocent family's home with guns drawn because they thought it was a marijuana farm, it creates cynicism in the public. “Trust is very easy to lose and very hard to build,” Walls said.

Lack of trust and worry about the permanence of data is why apps like Snapchat exist. “Why do people want to send pictures to each other that then automatically destroy themselves?” Walls asked. Because people are fighting back against surveillance and security. People are aware that the data they create can be monitored, collected and maintained, so solutions to make the data ephemeral are filling that need.

And “need” is the operative word, Walls said, because social media is no longer a luxury. Someone applying for a job will have a hard time getting hired, he said, if they have no online presence – it looks suspicious or unusual to employers. Because social media is becoming a requirement for many people, there is a big concern about how the government is allowed to use software like Raytheon's RIOT. “It's good for law enforcement,” Walls said, “but the potential for abuse is also enormous.”

RIOT Software Has Potential

Social media expert and Gartner analyst Brian Blau agreed that the potential impact of this type of software is big. “If you can tap into enough signals from individual use of technology, you can really understand what people are doing,” Blau said. “I talk to clients about … how we're all being tracked today and the privacy issues. It's not only the fact that you're checking in somewhere or that there's GPS, but you combine that with contextual data such as schedule or events or even the words that you say.” There are a lot of signals that people put online that, if combined, he said can create a fairly thorough profile.

Many elements of a person's life, such as personal beliefs and relationships, can be determined through signals generated from a Facebook account, while another set of data can be determined from a person's LinkedIn profile, and even more data could be brought in from a niche or hobby website or through a person's use of apps. People tend to try and keep their various social circles separate, but Blau said that putting everything together can in some cases create a rather accurate picture of who a person is, what they’re like, what they do, where they go and what they think.

While the potential for abuse exists, Blau noted that there are also constructive uses of predictive analytics. “Algorithms can be very sophisticated and you can make all kinds of inferences,” he said. “One of the cool things about social these days is that social analytics and mobile app analytics are giving off lots of data through the use of these technologies.”

And people are using these for good, Blau added. “They're using them to help people get better value out of social networks and social apps, and the government could potentially do something with our data. They can go out and buy that data like any other company can. And maybe that's what Raytheon is doing.”

Photo: The street in front of the west Los Angeles police station has yellow tape prohibiting the parking of cars Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, in response to threats by former LAPD officer Chris Dorner. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their spastic dog. He's obsessed with pizza and bread. Bill Watterson is his hero. He's learning to play chess. He thrives on criticism and wants to hear what you think of his reporting: