Government uses social networking to infiltrate people's lives

Posted by David Gomez

As part of a lawsuit against half a dozen federal agencies, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has obtained chilling documents revealing how the government routinely monitors people online.

According to an EFF blog post, government officials have been using surveillance of social networks to investigate citizenship petitions and the Department of Homeland Security established a "Social Networking Monitoring Cente" to collect and analyze online public communication during President Obama’s inauguration.

In the information the EFF received, there is a memo (dated May 2008) by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services entitled "Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS" (Office of Fraud Detection and National Security).

This memo is disturbing because of the assumptions the government makes about people who use social networking. The government uses deception to friend people with pending applications for citizenship in the US, and then they use social networking to gather information about that person’s life.

Their hope is to catch people engaged in lying to USCIS. They want to catch people whose relationships might not live up to the USCIS standard of a legitimate marriage. So while using social networking to expose people who scam the system isn’t an act of pure evil, it does make one suspicious of government monitoring of social networking.

This memo makes no mention of how solid the government’s information on a person has to be before surveillance is conducted. This makes is seem as if everyone who uses social networking is a potential target for spying. It also doesn’t say if the government officials who make friend requests to the people they want to spy on actually have to admit their connection to the government.

Based on the memo it would be easy for the government to use social networking to spy not only on individuals who have a citizenship application pending, but their friends and families also.

The EFF also received another bit of information in the form of some slides from a presentation about the Department of Homeland Security starting a Social Networking Monitoring Center. SNMC was created before President Obama’s inauguration to monitor social networking sites for so-called "items of interest."

The slides describe the tremendous amount of information that DHS collected from social networking sites about people who have accounts. As you might have guessed, nearly every popular form of social networking is being watched.

SNMN goes a bit further than just profiling general social networking sites. They have also been targeting sites with a specific demographic as well. Sites like MiGente and BlackPlanet have been subjected to government profiling as well as political sites like DailyKos.

The slides released to the EFF suggest that the government was collecting information on social networking tied to political events and people’s political beliefs prior to and during the president’s inauguration.

And while the slides attempt to minimize the action of collecting of "Personally Identifiable Information," it also says “openly divulged information excluding PII will be used for future corroboration purposes and trend analysis during the Inauguration period.”

So, yeah, it’s kind of hard to understand based on the contradictory language in the slides, when the government keeps and deletes certain personal information obtained from social networking.  

While some people will gripe and defend the government’s recently revealed activities; the language in the government documents is too unclear to justify any kind of monitoring of social networks.

The thin line between evil spying and government protection is getting erased by this type of activity. The EFF shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit just to find out that the government is sitting around taking copious notes about Facebook and Twitter.

Why all the secrecy over the last few years?