FBI says social media monitoring won't infringe privacy rights

Efforts won't focus on specific individuals or groups, agency insists

The FBI today said that its proposed plans to monitor social media sites as part of a broader strategy to improve real-time situation awareness will be fully vetted by the agency's Privacy and Civil Liberties Unit.

The unit will review the legal implications of the monitoring application and ensure that it meets all privacy and civil rights obligations before it is implemented, the agency said in a statement emailed to Computerworld "Although the FBI has always adapted to meet changes in technology, the rule of law, civil liberties, and civil rights, will remain our guiding principles," the agency said.

The FBI was responding to questions about its plans to use technology to quickly gather and analyze data posted on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and on blogs using simple keyword searches and phrases.

In a Request For Information (RFI) last month, the FBI said that data posted on such sites would let it more quickly detect specific and credible threats, locate those organizing and taking part in dangerous gatherings and predict upcoming events.

It noted that social media networks have been trumping police, firefighters and news media when it comes to communicating news of developing incidents and protests. "Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting," the RFI noted.

Similar monitoring by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already stoked considerable privacy concerns. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have called for more transparency and oversight of such monitoring activities.

EPIC last month warned that some of DHS' monitoring activities appeared to have little to do with public safety; it has expressed similar concerns over the FBI's plans.

Such concerns have prompted the House Committee on Homeland Security to schedule a hearing Thursday to examine the privacy implications of DHS' social media monitoring activities.

In its statement, the FBI said that information gathered from social media networks will support the activities of its Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC). "In accordance with its core mission, SIOC has a responsibility to enhance its techniques for collecting and disseminating real-time publicly available open source information to improve the FBI's overall situational awareness and support of mission requirements," the FBI said.

Social media monitoring will help the agency stay on top of breaking events, crisis activity or natural disasters that have already occurred or are still in progress, the FBI said. The effort will not focus on specific persons or protected groups, but on words that relate to specific events, crisis scenarios and criminal or terrorist activities.

Examples of the words that the FBI will use in its social media searches will include 'lockdown,' 'bomb,' 'suspicious package,' 'white powder,' 'active shoot' and 'school lock down.'

The federal government already uses publicly available open source information to identify immediate or emerging threats to national security. "The type of social media application being researched by the FBI, to view publicly available information, is no different than applications used by other government agencies."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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