Saturday, March 10, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
The latest onslaught comes from the FBI, which is only the most recent federal agency seeking to monitor all of your conversations on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The bureau has placed a request from tech firms to develop a program that would enable agents to sift through waves of “publicly available” information, ostensibly to look for keywords related to terrorism, criminal activity and other threats to national security.
‘Early warning’ system?
The goal, according to the bureau’s request, is to develop a sort of early warning system that provides real-time intelligence to improve “the FBI’s overall situational awareness.” The proposed program must “have the ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence that will allow SIOC to quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats.”
The FBI joins DARPA – the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in searching for a program that can “monitor” social media chatter (DARPA, ironically enough, invented the Internet, not Al Gore). The difference there, however, is that the Defense Department and the CIA focus on threats overseas; the FBI, meanwhile, is a domestic law enforcement apparatus, and as such, subject to constitutional restrictions regarding the development of its cases.
In defending its request for the development of a social media monitoring program, the FBI emphasized its focus on the “publicly available” information – the same information that is accessible to marketers and advertisers.
To get around that, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter may be able to exempt themselves from the monitoring by making their posts private, says Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Freedom Foundation. Beyond that, she adds, the U.S. government’s growing desire to monitor everyone is likely to have dire consequences for privacy and other civil liberties.
In an interview with the New Scientist, Lynch says most people post to their Facebook or Twitter accounts in the expectation that only their friends and followers are reading, which gives them “the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse.”
“But these tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the U.S.,” she added.
More government monitoring
As the FBI looks for its program, what many Americans may not know is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is already engaged in domestic monitoring of social media Web sites. In fact, DHS even has an operating procedure manual for the program.
Earlier, DHS officials had brushed off early suspicions about the program as saying it was “limited to gathering information that would help gain operational awareness about attacks, disasters or other emerging problems,” The New York Times reported.
And yet, despite DHS officials’ denials, one of the categories that constituted an “item of interest” in the 2011 version of the manual was discussion on social media about “policy directives, debates and implementations related to DHS.” When asked, department spokesman Matthew Chandler said that in practice the program was limited to “social media monitoring for situational awareness only.”
Ginger McCall, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group that filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to gain access to the department’s manual, is skeptical.
“The D.H.S. continues to monitor the Internet for criticism of the government,” she told the Times. “This suspicionless, overbroad monitoring quells legitimate First Amendment activity and exceeds the agency’s legal authority.”
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