Government agents following suspects on social networks

The issue of whether or not government or law enforcement agents are or should be allowed to go “undercover” on social networks is not a new one, but thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it is one that will continue to be in the public spotlight at least for a while more.

In late 2009, the Foundation filed a suit against a number of government agencies because they refused to hand over documents that describe their policies regarding the use of social networks to gather information during investigations and as means of surveillance.

As a result, they have recently received a number of documents that show that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have been using social networks to monitor the activity of people who applied for U.S. citizenship and that the DHS has been collecting and analyzing public communication on social networks during President Obama’s inauguration.

And while the EFF says that there are good reasons for USCIS agents to use the social networks to help them in their investigations, they are worried about a number of things. For example, the documents don’t say whether the agencies have given any thought to the fact that information collected in this way could still be false, exaggerated, or simply withheld, or say what level of suspicion must the agent find before going online and use this kind of surveillance. Also, there is no mention of whether they are required to reveal themselves as agents or whether they are allowed to deceive the suspect in order to gain access to his or hers circle of “friends”.

When it comes to the DHS agent’s efforts during the presidential inauguration, the Foundation admits that the discussion about Fair Information Practice Principles to be followed during the monitoring is laudable, but that the list of targeted sites and the extent of collected data should be a cause for concern.

“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,” the Foundation says.

“According to the slides, SNMC looks for “”items of interest’ in the routine of social networking posts on the events, organizations, activities, and environment” of important events. 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.”