Social Network Surveillance by Feds in Spotlight

A Freedom of Information Act request by privacy watchdogs revealed the Department of Homeland Security surveilled social networks during President Obama's inauguration as well as an effort to use social networks to investigate citizenship petitions.

The subject of federal surveillance of social networks has come up again, this time prompted by new government documents unearthed by privacy watchdogs.

The documents, which were revealed due to a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request filed by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) with the help of UC Berkeley's Samuelson Clinic. According to the documents, the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) established a "Social Networking Monitoring Center" to collect and analyze online, public communication for "items of interest" during U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.

In addition, the documents also show the government using social networks to investigate citizenship petitions. Specifically, a 2008 memo by the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) entitled -Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS' (Office of Fraud Detection and National Security) instructs USCIS agents to "attempt to "friend" citizenship petitioners and their beneficiaries on social networks in the hope that these users will (perhaps inadvertently) allow agents to monitor their activities for evidence of suspected fraud," blogged EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch.

"Of course, there are good reasons for government agencies and law enforcement officials to use all the tools at their disposal, including social networks, to ferret out fraud and other illegal conduct," she added. "And while one might just chalk this up to another case of 'caveat friendster,' it does raise some questions about the agency's conduct. First, the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target... Second, and perhaps more disturbing, the memo assumes a user's online profile always accurately reflects her offline life."

The DHS initiative, she blogged, is concerning due to the breadth of the sites being targeted.

"For example, among the key 'Candidates for Analysis' were general social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Flickr as well as sites that focus specifically on certain demographic groups such as MiGente and BlackPlanet, news sites such as NPR, and political commentary sites DailyKos," she noted.

"According to the slides, [the Social Networking Monitoring Center] looks for "-items of interest" in the routine of social networking posts on the events, organizations, activities, and environment" of important events," she continued. "While the slides indicate that DHS scrutinized the information and emphasized the need to look at credible sources, evidence, and corroboration, they also suggest the DHS collected a massive amount of data on individuals and organizations explicitly tied to a political event."

This is not the first time the issue of how intelligence and police use social networks has come up. The issue was raised earlier this year when the EFF got hold of a document from the U.S. Department of Justice discussing the use of social networking sites by law enforcement agencies to obtain evidence and conduct undercover operations.