Stonewalled by federal agencies, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit Dec. 1 against a half-dozen government agencies for refusing to disclose their surveillance policies of social networking sites. The agencies include the FBI, CIA, DOJ (Department of Justice) and DHS (Department of Homeland Security).
According to news reports, the government has frequently used information gathered from social networking sites as evidence in various investigations, including searching Facebook for evidence of underage drinking and and watching YouTube videos to identify riot suspects. In addition, legislation is pending in Congress that would increase protections for consumers who use social-networking Websites and other online tools.
In response, the EFF made more than a dozen FOIA requests to federal agencies asking for information about how the government collects and uses this sensitive information. When the agencies refused to comply, EFF filed its lawsuit.
"Millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook every day, disclosing lots of information about their private lives," James Tucker, a student working with EFF through the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. "As Congress debates new privacy laws covering sites like Facebook, lawmakers and voters alike need to know how the government is already using this data and what is at stake."
The lawsuit demands immediate processing and release of all records concerning policies for the use of social networking sites in government investigations.
"Internet users deserve to know what information is collected, under what circumstances, and who has access to it," said Shane Witnov, a law student also working on the case. "These agencies need to abide by the law and release their records on social networking surveillance."
Among the examples of government surveillance cited in the lawsuit, the FBI searched the house of Elliot Madison, a social worker, because of Twitter messages he sent during a G-20 summit notifying protesters of police movements. In another case, FBI agents researched the social-networking activities, including Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, of computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz as part of an investigation into the distribution of millions of pages of court documents obtained from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system.
"Although the federal government clearly uses social networking Websites to collect
information, often for laudable reasons, it has not clarified the scope of its use of social networking Websites or disclosed what restrictions and oversight is in place to prevent abuse," the EFF says in the lawsuit.