Lawsuit seeks information on federal surveillance of social networking sites

EFF, UC Berkeley's Samuelson Clinic file FOIA complaint against six agencies

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the University of California, Berkeley's Samuelson Clinic have filed a lawsuit (PDF document) against six government agencies, seeking information on their use of social networking sites for data collection and surveillance.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It invoked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in seeking information from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Treasury, Central Intelligence Agency, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Shane Witnov, a law student at UC Berkeley School of Law's Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic said the lawsuit was prompted by the need for more transparency around the government's use of social networking sites for information gathering purposes.

"Social networking Web sites can be invaluable sources of information. There is a wealth of information on there that can be really useful in crime protection," he said. At the same time, an unchecked ability to gather information from such sites could be invasive of privacy, he said.

The eight-page complaint lists several media reports about law enforcement's use of social sites for surveillance purposes. One of the reports includes an Associated Press story about police searching Facebook photos for evidence of underage drinking and watching YouTube videos to identify suspected rioters.

Another example cited in the compliant is a story in The New York Times about the FBI searching the house of s social worker because of Twitter messages he sent during the G-20 summit about police movements in the city.

"Although the Federal Government clearly uses social-networking websites to collect information, often for laudable reasons, it has not clarified the scope of its use of social-networking websites or disclosed what restrictions and oversight is in place to prevent abuse," the lawsuit said.

For instance, there is no information on how such searches are conducted, or whether they involve specific targets or are broader in scope, Witnov said. "We don't know if they are searching for the top twenty most wanted criminals or are just scanning," such sites he said. Similarly there is no information on whether such searches are being enabled by automated information gathering and data visualization tools.

One of the articles talks about the Secret Service immediately spotting the opening of social network account by a fugitive. The fact that it was "immediately spotted" is interesting, Witnov said. "That phrasing might mean nothing, or it might suggest they spotted it immediately because they had a software program constantly monitoring or looking for certain people. We would certainly like to know the answer to that," he said.

In October, The EFF and the Samuelson Clinic had sent FOIA requests to the departments named in the lawsuit and to others asking for records about federal guidelines on the use of social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Flickr. The FOIA request asked the federal agencies for all "guides, manuals, presentations, memoranda, or other materials" pertaining to federal use of social sites for data gathering purposes. It also sought information on the use of data gathering and visualization tools for surveillance purposes on such sites.

Of the agencies that received the request, the Department of Homeland Security said they did not have any responsive documents, while the NSA said they wouldn't comment one way or the other for national security reasons, Witnov said.

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