A Peek Into How the Feds Use Social Nets -- Like What You See?

The New York Times has a big story today on online privacy -- or lack thereof. But that's not really the privacy story of the week that interests me. Yesterday, the AP ran a story detailing how the Feds use Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter to nab suspects -- sometimes by breaking the terms of service of these sites by pretending to be someone else. The IRS even uses Google Street View to investigate taxpayers, as it turns out. Better think twice before you claim poverty while actually in the process of putting a huge, new addition on your house.

Turns out this kind of surveillance is huge in Italy, too. The New York Post has a story today about how Italian authorities nabbed one Pasquale Manfredi, a proud member of his country's 100 Most Wanted List, by monitoring his Facebook account, where he'd log in using the name "Georgie." The story explained: "Officers said they believed he received coded orders via the site and also kept in touch with mobsters.

Manfredi had more than 200 friends on his Facebook site and police are going through them systematically to see if any others are involved in Mafia activity or are wanted."

Jeez, makes you want to think twice about that friend request from the person you're not sure you know.

None of this is exactly surprising, but it does bring up privacy issues in a different way than the usual debate about whether it's OK to target someone with a baldness remedy when it's obvious from their profile picture that they are follically challenged. The information about social networking policy within the government was obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has begun to post the documents it has received. (I haven't heard back yet from the EFF on whether they have an official position on what the documents reveal.)

So far, this includes two presentations, both of which are worth taking a look at: one from the DOJ called "Obtaining and Using Evidence from Social Networking Sites" and another from the IRS of a 2009 training course. Ironically, the DOJ admits to withholding some documents from the EFF, "the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

If you read through the documents, you'll discover that there is no standard, for any of the parties concerned, about how far a federal authority can go in using social nets. IRS employees are cautioned against impersonating anyone in their quest to nab people who aren't paying their taxes; DOJ officials do, on occasion, though there is clear concern about violating a site's terms of service, a worry that was heightened by U.S. v. Drew, the horrible 2008 case in which a woman named Lori Drew allegedly pretended to be a boy on MySpace, an impersonation that led to the suicide of a young girl who had befriended "him" -- only to be spurned. That case ended with a judge granting an acquittal, and overturning the jury's guilty verdict. Drew had been charged with a misdemeanor violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The central question: in the name of nabbing the bad guys, should law enforcement be able to create false accounts on social networks?

Meanwhile, over at the social networks, it's not too clear how to deal with the Feds either. Facebook, according to the DOJ document, "often cooperates with emergency requests"; MySpace asks for a search warrant for private communication that is more than 181 days old; Twitter has a "stated policy of producing data only in response to legal process." (LinkedIn's "use for criminal communications appears limited.")

Of course, much information is available without federal authorities ever having to consider breaking a site's terms of service. Frankly, if you're dumb enough to post pictures of the fur coat you just bought using someone else's credit card, then you are probably also dumb enough not to give a care to privacy settings; you get what you deserve.

Still, these documents are a window into the privacy issues social networking is increasingly going to confront as it continues to take over the Internet. Unfortunately, right now, the view inside is way too blurry.

3 comments about "A Peek Into How the Feds Use Social Nets -- Like What You See?".
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  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, March 17, 2010 at 5:46 p.m.

    Great post. It leads me to the question, what happens to a citizen of Iran, who is being tracked by the United States?

    Now reverse that - a citizen of the US, being tracked by Iran? Iran, like China and other countries, is using sovereignty to trump standard terms of use at social network sites. So if they decline to respond to a Iranian "emergency request" or "legal process" -- does that mean they end up with a morass similar to the one currently facing Google in China?

    Makes me think we haven't heard the last of this issue...

  2. Dewita Soeharjono from Some Things Organic, March 18, 2010 at 8:42 a.m.

    This is a great post. They said there is a privacy act. But, do we still have privacy? I meant, not only the Feds snooping on you (maybe), but the private sector can give you all info about you- for a fee. So, think with social networking, your life is kind of on the open...

  3. Mark Simmons from marCis interactive, March 23, 2010 at 4:32 p.m.

    You're right. With Social Media, our lives are pretty open to anyone, fed or no fed. It's a price that we pay for access to information. Personally, I'm very careful about what I write in both my personal and professional profiles. You never know what a potential employer or client may come across.

    I'm fine with the Feds monitoring criminals, but that's always a blurry line. Not that I have anything to worry about! :) But, we all know that these programs start off with the best of intentions and then morph into a civil-liberties-violating-fiasco!

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