Privacy watchdogs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued the Department of Justice and five other government organizations for cloaking their policies for using Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to investigate citizens in criminal and other matters.
On behalf of the EFF, Berkeley Law School’s Samuelson Clinic filed suit against the agencies Dec. 1, claiming that it made more than one dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get the government agencies to reveal how they use social networking sites for investigations. Defendants in the suit include the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Treasury and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Samuelson Clinic filed its suit after the defendants failed to respond to the FOIA requests. In their suit, the clinic and the EFF pointed to three October 2009 news reports that chronicle the government’s use of social networking data as evidence in several investigations.
During the investigation into the distribution of millions of pages of court documents obtained from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, FBI agents researched the social networking activities of Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer and activist, including his Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, according to this Oct. 5 story on Wired.
In a separate case the, the FBI, which falls under the purview of the DOJ, also searched the house of social worker Elliot Madison because of Twitter messages he sent during the G-20 summit notifying protesters of police movements, according to this Oct. 5 story in the New York Times.
The New York Daily News Nov. 29 published a piece on how law enforcement officials peruse Twitter to monitor gang activity in New York City.
While it is clear where law enforcement officials are getting this information-Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are popular channels for communication-the EFF and Samuelson Clinic want to know exactly how and what kinds of info feds are accessing from users’ social networking profiles. The watchdogs, for example, want to know what the protocols are for using fake identities to dupe users into accepting an official as a friend.
“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 groups said in the suit.
Shane Witnov, a law student working on the case through the Samuelson Clinic, said Internet users deserve to know what information is collected, under what circumstances, and who has access to it. “These agencies need to abide by the law and release their records on social networking surveillance.”
The lawsuit demands immediate processing and release of all records concerning policies for the use of social networking sites in government investigations. The suit also comes as Congress is considering legislation that may increase protections for consumers who use social networking sites.
Social networks are hardly the only places to mine valuable data. A security researcher found that Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009.