Records shows how agencies monitor social media sites

Stephen Miller | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 13, 2010

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group based in San Francisco, has received information through a federal Freedom of Information Act request documenting how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses social networking sites to investigate petitions for citizenship.

EFF obtained a June 20 Citizen and Immigration Services memo shedding insight into how social networking sites are used by agencies and what kind of individual information can be taken from them.

From October through November 2009, EFF sent a series of FOIA requests to more than six governmental agencies asking for information on how they monitor social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Flickr.

The requests sprang from research on the topic that had been done in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, said Jennifer Lynch, attorney with EFF.

“We had been working with criminal defense attorneys at the clinic . . . and they had been talking about how social networking sites were coming up in the cases that they were working on,” she said.

When the agencies failed to fulfill the group’s requests, EFF filed a lawsuit claiming a violation of FOIA and wrongful withholding of agency records.

As agencies released responsive documents throughout the course of the ongoing litigation, EFF become aware of what it calls a “potentially deceptive and unethical approach to collecting information.”

“What we were concerned about was how agencies were going about using the sites. Were they searching for just publicly available information? Were they somehow getting access to peoples’ private information?” Lynch said.

Sources within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security state that the department relies entirely on publicly available information and does not engage in any kind of “friending” on social media sites. However, the June 20 memo stated that “Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of ‘friends’ link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don't even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS [Fraud Detection and National Security agents] to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.”

The Department of Homeland Security website provides information on its monitoring of social networking, which it purports to use only for the purposes of situational awareness. For example, a man trapped in a building during the earthquake in Haiti was saved because a post of his on Twitter that included his location was read by rescuers.

In terms of immigration, Department of Homeland Security sources said that the department may use publicly available information posted to a citizenship applicant’s Facebook page to determine if they are lying to the government about their marital status.

The lawsuit requesting further access to the documents requested by EFF is pending.