FBI releases plans to monitor social networks

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Jan 26 09:30:49 PST 2012


FBI releases plans to monitor social networks 

20:10 25 January 2012

Cybersecurity Law

Jim Giles, consultant

(Image: Patrick George/Ikon Images/Getty)

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans
to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other
social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and
other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly. The plans show
that the bureau believes it can use information pulled from social media
sites to better respond to crises, and maybe even to foresee them.

The information comes from a document released on 19 January looking for
companies who might want to build a monitoring system for the FBI. It spells
out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential
contractors to reply by 10 February.

The bureau's wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically
search "publicly available" material from Facebook, Twitter and other social
media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations,
online crime and other FBI missions. Agents would be alerted if the searches
produce evidence of "breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats".
Agents will have the option of displaying the tweets and other material
captured by the system on a map, to which they can add layers of other data,
including the locations of US embassies and military installations, details
of previous terrorist attacks and the output from local traffic cameras.

The document suggests that the bureau wants to use social media to target
specific users or groups of users. It notes that agents need to "locate bad
actors...and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and
possible adverse actions". It also states that the bureau will use social
media to create "pattern-of-life matrices" -- presumably logs of targets'
daily routines -- that will aid law enforcement in planning operations.

The use of the term "publicly available" suggests that Facebook and Twitter
may be able to exempt themselves from the monitoring by making their posts
private. But the desire of the US government to watch everyone may still have
an unwelcome impact, warns Jennifer Lynch at the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.

Lynch says that many people post to social media 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," says
Lynch. "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 US".

The document also suggests that the FBI thinks it can use social media to
peer into the future. It notes that agents need to use social media to
"[p]redict likely developments in the situation or future actions taken by
bad actors (by conducting, [sic] trend, pattern, association, and timeline

The bureau declined to immediately comment on how this analysis might work,
or on any other aspect of the document, but the idea of turning agents into
digital soothsayers is plausible: researchers working at Facebook and in
academia have shown that social media can be used to infer many things about
an individual, including the existence of friendships that are not declared
on social networking sites and the location of users who have not revealed
where they are based. 

More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list