FBI wants to follow people on Facebook and Twitter

The FBI is planning on monitoring all ‘publicly available data’ on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, through a new system it wants to develop. That means all posts on these sites will soon come under the scrutiny of the bureau, reported the Huffington Post.

The bureau published a request for information last month, noting that it is currently seeking a company interested in building and maintaining such a system, which would provide for the FBI an automated search capability for all social networking sites, with the goal of outlining and spotting potential threats and crises. The system is being tentatively referred to as a “geospatial alert and analysis mapping application.”

“The intent is to view publicly available open-source, non-private social data that is readily available on the Internet,” said the FBI in a statement to New Scientist. “The application [being developed] will not focus on specific persons or protected groups, but on words that relate to ‘events’ and ‘crisis,’ and activities constituting violations of federal criminal law or threats to national security.”

Status updates or tweets found to have such buzzwords would then be captured by the system on a map, where their original location could be tracked. The overall operation, said New Scientist, would entail “locating bad actors…analyzing their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions.”

But the FBI will go one step further to track suspicious people. They will utilize social media to create ‘pattern-of-life matrices,’ which are essentially logs of targets’ daily routines and activities. The matrices would act as a model with which agents could have a better chance at predicting the person’s next action.

All this makes critics and concerned social networkers wary. Many feel like their privacy and freedom of speech are coming – or may yet come – under fire, if such an application were to be implemented.

Online issues currently left up to ethical debate – such as illegal filesharing – exacerbate the issue, because they may, under such a system, mark Internet users as potential ‘bad actors.’ In the wake of a recent victory for downloaders over the repressive proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation, this new system could very well serve as a workaround, enforcing – by proxy – some of what those bills detailed.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center – a Washington, D.C.-based public interest research group – called this pursuit by the FBI “ridiculous.”

“Get a warrant,” she said. “You don’t know half the people you [might] communicate with on Twitter. [The FBI] are going to launch investigations and start looking at all sorts of people that they have no right to be investigating. There is no accountability, no transparency, and no oversight.”

As the bureau has only said it will monitor data that is public, this could suggest that users can opt out of potential FBI scrutiny by making their Facebook or Twitter pages private. However, the bureau has not publicly confirmed this one way or the other.

Jessica Lynch, a writer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation – an advocacy group for digital rights – says that either way, such a system would have a very negative impact. She noted that users typically enjoy social media because they can allow only certain friends to see their posts, giving 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 that will have on free speech in the U.S.”

Photo: Hustvedt/Wikipedia


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music review channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel, as well as a self-help book and several digital comics.