The FBI Says It Can Neither Confirm Or Deny Social Media Monitoring Programs It Publicly Secured Contracts For

from the who-are-you-going-to-believe,-us-or-your-lying-search-results? dept

It's no secret the FBI engages in social media surveillance. It has a contract with Dataminr to sift through tweets directly from Twitter's firehose. For years it has engaged in suspicionless pre-investigation "assessments," which compile every publicly-available piece of information the agency can gather without a warrant or subpoena. (Assessments also allow the agency to gather info from law enforcement-only databases, but that's not the issue at hand here.) From this starting point, the FBI can decide whether or not the person it targeted in its non-investigation investigation is worth investigating.

Public posts on social media services have zero expectation of privacy. All the same, one likes to believe the government has better things to do with its limited resources than scour the public-facing web for unlawful tweets or whatever. Clearly, the software the agency uses limits manpower expenditures while allowing the feds to act as unseen followers/friends of thousands of people's social media timelines, but it's still haystacks someone needs to make sense of.

The FBI's social media surveillance is an open secret. Of course, now that it's being pressed for details by the ACLU, it's trying to pretend it has no idea what everyone -- including the FBI -- is talking about.

In recent years, the federal government has significantly ramped up its efforts to monitor people on social media. The FBI, for one, has repeatedly acknowledged that it engages in surveillance of social media posts. So it was surprising when the bureau responded to our Freedom of Information Act request on this kind of surveillance by saying that it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.”

The six other federal agencies we submitted the FOIA request to haven’t produced a single document. The request, filed last May, seeks information on how the agencies collect and analyze posts from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

It's been more than eight months since the ACLU asked for records. All it's received is categorical non-denial. So, the ACLU is suing the agency (and a few others) to force the release of these records. The FBI's public acknowledgment of its surveillance really isn't going to help it keep these records hidden. Here are a few publicly-available resources that suggest the FBI should be able to do far more than pretend it can't say anything at all about its social media surveillance programs. From the lawsuit [PDF]:

DOJ and its component agencies use social media surveillance for law enforcement purposes. In 2012, the FBI sought information from contractors on a planned automated tool that would enable the FBI to search and monitor information on social media platforms. The FBI also revealed in November 2016 that it would acquire social media monitoring software that would give it full access to Twitter data, searchable using customizable filters “tailored to operational needs.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, Requisition Number DJF17-1300-PR00000555, Limited Source Justification at 1 (Nov. 8, 2016).

News reports further indicate that the FBI has established a social media surveillance task force. See Chip Gibbons, “The FBI Is Setting Up a Task Force to Monitor Social Media,” The Nation, Feb. 1, 2018. The purpose and scope of the task force remain unclear.

Why should we care if the government is sweeping up content from our public social media accounts? Well, because of the side effects, which include damage to First Amendment protections and the possibility of finding yourself in the custody of government agents thanks to their innate inability to consider comments in context.

Online speech is generally subject to the full protections of the First Amendment and should not serve as the basis for surveillance, investigation, or other adverse government actions, like placing people on watchlists. Government surveillance and retention of online speech without any connection to the investigation of actual criminal conduct makes it more likely that innocent people will wrongly be investigated, surveilled, or watchlisted. Additionally, public awareness that the government systematically monitors social media discourages the expression of disfavored or potentially controversial speech, which the First Amendment protects.

The FBI -- and other federal agencies -- need to let the public know what they're doing with all this "public" information. If they feel the lack of privacy protections makes it ok to engage in widespread monitoring of social media accounts, the least they can do in return is explain how this information will be used and what safeguards, if any, are in place to deter abuse or erroneous investigations.

Filed Under: fbi, foia, media monitoring, social media, transparency
Companies: aclu


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2019 @ 1:34pm

    "no we don't"

    [imaginary ACLU Private DM to another Lawyer on Twitter]

    @ACLU: DM @FOIALawyerPerson "Hey! Did you hear about the FBI searching and storing all tweets and social media post? Can you look into this for us and see if you cna find any evidence?"
    --
    @FBI: DM @ACLU @FOIALawyerPerson "No we don't"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2019 @ 1:37pm

    Social Media Task Force

    Imagine going to law school or getting some advanced degree at a college, joining the FBI and thinking you finally made it. Then you find out you are on the Social Media Task Force and are forced to read the tweets of @BonerMan420XXX all day to see if he said anything deviant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2019 @ 2:04pm

    but it's still haystacks someone needs to make sense of.

    Or do they just use the algorithms to put people on no fly lists, or roadside stops etc.?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Drunk Uncle Sam, 24 Jan 2019 @ 2:14pm

    I wonder how often they pose as a particular user and converse with a target as tho they were that person in an attempt to gather info, parallel construct, obfuscate and or deploy complete bullshit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    TRX, 24 Jan 2019 @ 3:03pm

    Re: Social Media Task Force

    Reminds me of the interview with the race car driver who said, "I thought it would be action and fancy hotels and hot women, but it turned out to be mostly sitting in the pits talking to people like you..."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 24 Jan 2019 @ 8:55pm

    What sky?

    Only law enforcement or the intelligence agencies could meet with you under a bright, cloudless sky, look you right in the eye and say, "There is no such thing as a sky."

    ...and then wonder why we don't trust them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Jan 2019 @ 11:24pm

    Not too difficult to guess

    If they feel the lack of privacy protections makes it ok to engage in widespread monitoring of social media accounts, the least they can do in return is explain how this information will be used and what safeguards, if any, are in place to deter abuse or erroneous investigations.

    No need to ask them that, the answers are likely pretty easy to guess.

    Q: How will this information be used?

    A: In whatever manner they feel like at the moment, which may or may not follow the law, and/or in whatever manner they feel will be most beneficial to the agency/agent at the time.

    Q: What safeguards, if any, are in place to deter abuse or erroneous investigations?

    A: I'll let someone else answer that one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Jan 2019 @ 1:05am

    Re: "no we don't"

    Not aware of an XKCD for that one, so have a Three Panel Soul.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Peter (profile), 25 Jan 2019 @ 2:51am

    FBI agents would have been lynched a few years back ...

    ... had they been caught reading people's diaries behind their backs.

    Pretty amazing how fast it has become the new normal for "security agencies" to consider it a their human right to investigate your most private thoughts on the off-chance that you might blow up a government building at some unspecified point in the future.

    All this, let's not forgot, without any evidence that all the spying on Americans and foreigners does actually make the country safer...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2019 @ 3:29am

    Re: FBI agents would have been lynched a few years back ...

    "on the off-chance that you might blow up a government building"


    Is that their excuse? Rather flimsy at best.

    No, I doubt their sincerity wrt the stated reasons for their overreaching and draconian policies, practices and procedures.
    Any dirt found on anyone can and will be used in the most despicable ways as a means to an end .... what is their end game anyways?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2019 @ 1:38pm

    Oh yeah really ummm hmmmm i beg to differ

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2019 @ 1:39pm

    Oh yeah really ummm hmmmm i beg to differ i got proof its happened and almost got me lynched!!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2019 @ 1:40pm

    Oh yeah really ummm hmmmm i beg to differ i got proof its happened and almost got me lynched!!!! I know how they do it and willing to explain

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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