The FBI Wants To Be Your Facebook Friend

from the please-share-this-post,-thx,-your-friendly-g-men dept

Undoubtedly, the FBI has always surveilled the open web, looking for persons or phrases of interest. It’s just going to get a whole lot better at doing it. And it’s going to spend millions of your tax dollars to make it easier to place your public internet interactions under its social media-focused microscope. Aaron Schaffer has the details for the Washington Post.

The FBI has contracted for 5,000 licenses to use Babel X, a software made by Babel Street that lets users search social media sites within a geographic area and use other parameters.

The contract began March 30 and is worth as much as $27 million. The FBI has already agreed to pay an IT vendor around $5 million for the first year of the contract, procurement records indicate. The contract has not previously been reported.

Babel X is one of Babel Street’s products. Babel Street has made previous headlines here at Techdirt for selling location data gleaned from cell phone apps to federal agencies (including CBP, ICE, US Secret Service and the US military), allowing them to bypass warrant requirements erected by the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision.

Babel X targets the internet, focusing on publicly viewable posts hosted by a large number of social media services. The licenses obtained by the FBI target Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn (?), VKontakte, Telegram, and “Deep/Dark Web.”

The FBI’s wishlist runs deeper than the online services listed above. It also would like access to posts on 8Kun, Discord, Gab, Parler, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, and Weibo, but doesn’t consider lack of immediate access to be a dealbreaker.

The FBI will be performing lots and lots of searches, some possibly constrained by geofences tossed up around areas of interest.

In contracting documents, the FBI estimates that its 5,000 licensees will run around 20,000 keyword searches every month, though it cautioned that that’s “merely an estimate.”

The FBI only wants access to content it can obtain without logins or court orders. That’s still going to be millions of posts depending on the keywords used or the area searched. On top of keyword searches, the FBI wants to be able to capture and analyze “emotions and sentiments,” which will apparently necessitate the use of “emoji searches.”

This will put the FBI on the receiving end of an extremely productive fire hose. Hence the need to spend millions not just on content acquisition, but the tools to make sense of the shit tonnes of data the FBI will obtain with Babel Street’s tools.

Now, it’s been long understood that anything viewable by members of the public can be viewed by law enforcement. But some courts have had problems with the government assuming powerful tools, that exponentially increase surveillance powers by becoming the equivalent of thousands or millions of unblinking eyes, are free of constitutional concerns. The courts have concerns even if law enforcement often does not.

On top of that, there’s the “reasonable expectation of privacy.” While people may understand that others may see their posts if they maintain a public account, they don’t reasonably expect government employees should be able to eavesdrop at will, much less collect their posts in bulk and subject them to powerful analytic software.

This will lead to self-censorship and the mistaken targeting of people who routinely deal with issues that align with government interests, like activists, journalists, rights groups, FOIA enthusiasts, and critics of government activity.

So, some of these people will either take their accounts private or steer clear of discussing terms the FBI might find interesting, just to steer clear of future hassle. That’s not free speech, as the ACLU’s Matt Cagle points out:

“The First Amendment protects online speech, period,” he said. “People should not have to exercise their free speech behind privacy settings in order to avoid being surveilled.”

It appears the FBI is going to collect it all. The documents say it wants to “analyze past events.” But it also wants to run “persistent” searches every eight minutes and feed these results into its Babel Street enabled predictive policing program.

While the FBI has offered a statement stating basically that this is legal, useful, and probably will do cool anti-terrorism stuff, it did not offer any assurance that policies were being crafted to regulate collection and retention of this content. Nor did it say anything about the federally required Privacy Impact Assessment it needs to hand in before deploying these Babel Street licenses. It will probably take the intervention of congressional oversight to get better answers than the ones the FBI is willing to provide voluntarily. And while we wait, the FBI will be subjecting free speech to government scrutiny.

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Companies: babel street

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Comments on “The FBI Wants To Be Your Facebook Friend”

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fairuse (profile) says:

Science Fiction Only A Few Years Ago

There was a CBS broadcast network series called “Person of Interest” that presented the plot that in order to stop terrorist attack before it happens the “Machine” had to be able to sort through the data as a human could. Check it out.

The problem the FBI has is one of scale. False positives. No oversight. And of course the software seeded with wishful thinking and poorly managed politicks.

Luck with this FBI. (My single point of social media, Twitter, is giggling.)

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Ah but the hook for ‘Person of Interest’ was that the protagonists were never stopping the big plots the system detected, but just 1 person the machine figured out was going to die from means other than terrorists.

All of these predictions for little people were just wiped at the end of the day, and the machine would start looking again for big plots, stumbling over hundreds of peoples making drug deals, borrowing money from the wrong people, etc. etc. who would end up dead within a day… but the machine would spit out 1 persons social security number and drama would ensue.

Deputy Dickwad says:

All y'all are gonna get it!

My brother in law is an FBI Special Agent.

All, & I mean All y’all are gonna get what you deserve for thinking you can just post what ever the hell you want with no reprocusions?

Well you ‘ll have another thing comming, generally at about 04:45 in the am, & he don’t care about the Assthetic of the neighborhood!

I can promise you that Citizen!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Because larger and larger haystacks will make them better… they totally didn’t miss white supremacist attacks & plots because they were to busy trying to peek under every hijab… oh wait.

More is not always better, even with all the computing power in the world you can’t find everything.
stares at kids using different code words to avoid filters story
Unless you know what they are using those for you might end up repeating the Navy trying to find that bitch Dorothy that teh gays were friends of.

Hyman Rosen says:

Law Enforcement is not the Enemy

Despite Tim Cushing choosing to make a Techdirt post every time a case of law enforcement malfeasance or problematic behavior happens, law enforcement is not in fact the enemy of the people. If the FBI can help maintain law and order by acquiring public information that it is legally allowed to have, good for them.

What Cushing does is no different than someone writing about every crime committed by Black people in order to give them a black eye.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


“What Cushing does is no different than someone writing about every crime committed by Black people in order to give them a black eye.”

You’re comparing poor Tim to what the media contact in every department does everytime an officers kills a black person?

Hyman Rosen says:

Re: Re:

In any field of endeavor where there are millions of interactions between people, inevitably some encounters will involve fools or knaves. Listing every such encounter will leave the false impression that this is true of all encounters. That’s what Cushing does with his endless law enforcement posts. They’re meaningless without knowing what proportion of cases they cover.

Imagine that someone created a Techdirt post every time a poor or impaired driver caused a car crash. It would be clear that the poster hated cars and was trying to get people to believe that cars should not be driven. Cushing is no different.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re: Re:

“They’re meaningless without knowing what proportion of cases they cover.”

That’s no excuse for ignorance on your part, Hymen Rosan. If you want to know what proportion of cases Tim Cushing’s posts (and those of others) covers, then just send in FOIA requests to the relevant agencies. Simples!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Listing every such encounter will leave the false impression that this is true of all encounters.

When the cops do it, it’s called “predictive policing”. They go for the “I feared for my life” excuse any time they feel a little antsy during a no-knock warrant.

Naughty Autie says:


FYI, being suspected of passing a dodgy $20 bill is not a crime, and certainly not worthy of the death penalty, Hymen Rosan.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: By 'dodgy', do you mean 'counterfeit'?

‘…passing a dodgy $20 bill is not a crime…’

It’s not?

You may want to go look at the US Secret Service page on Wikipedia.

Anon E Moose says:

Time to start burying all your secret messages, one letter at a time, in individual Yiff pics for the FBI to decode.


This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Nah says:

Okay, got it, Techdirt is back to hating federal pigs.

Or is it just Techdirt’s usual policy: law enforcement are good guys when killing White mothers, arresting patriots, and entrapping useful idiots, and bad guys at all other times (and especially relevant to the Techdirt crowd, when arresting child pornographers and molesters.)

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