Yes, the Feds Are Spying on Social Media

Just in case anyone still harbors illusions on this score, the answer is “Yes, the federal government is definitely spying on social media.” In the latest development, a group of online privacy advocates is suing the Department of Homeland Security for failing to release records of its online spying -- which isn’t terribly surprising, considering that it’s not really spying anymore if everyone knows what you’re doing.

The DHS has admitted in a public statement that it creates profiles to monitor “publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites, and message boards,” including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, in what is known as the “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative.” The aim is to “to provide situational awareness” for the federal, state, and local governments; the DHS “may also share this de-identified information with international partners and the private sector where necessary and appropriate for coordination.” Crucially, the DHS statement also reveals that participating agencies may reveal personally identifying information about Internet users in emergency, life-and-death situations.

The list of search and monitoring tools used by the DHS includes Collecta, RSSOwl, Social Mention, Spy, Who’s Talkin, and Shrook RSS Reader, while public content and media sharing sites monitored by DHS include Hulu,, Live Leak, Magma, Time Tube, Vimeo, YouTube, and MySpace Video. Twitter alone is monitored through a score of Twitter-specific search engines and trend monitoring services.

The array of search terms used by DHS to keep tabs on social media includes “Secret Service,” “Border Patrol,” “Agent,” “Task Force,” “Air Marshal,” “Assassination,” “Attack,” “Drill,” “Exercise,” “Cops,” “Dirty Bomb,” “Militia,” “Shooting,” “Shots fired,” “Deaths,” “Explosion,” “Gangs,” “Breach,” and “Lockdown,” as well as -- surprise -- the names of agencies like the CIA, the FBI, and of course the DHS itself.

Back in April 2011 an organization called the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to the DHS use of social media monitoring -- a request that EPIC says the DHS has failed to respond to. Thus on December 20 EPIC filed an FOIA lawsuit against DHS for these records, which EPIC director Marc Rotenberg told ABC News will supply more information about when, where, and how social media monitoring is used.

ABC News quotes Rotenberg: “We want to know how they're collecting information online, what they're collecting online and if there's legal basis to do this… We are trying to understand what the circumstances are when the DHS is engaged in tracking to social media sites.”

In an earlier post I wrote about the fact that the DHS is using social networks to ferret out fake "green card" marriages between U.S. citizens and immigrants for the purpose of obtaining residency or citizenship for the latter. According to awesomely frank internal DHS records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request, “Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of ‘friends’ link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don't even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for [the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security] to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.”

4 comments about "Yes, the Feds Are Spying on Social Media".
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  1. Steve Sarner from if(we), December 30, 2011 at 12:56 p.m.

    On this subject, Erik, here's an interesting interview of a "social media librarian" who talks about a CIA group doing this type of work - starts at the 20 minute mark. The interview as a whole is interesting too as it relates to digital rights for books and some of the "scary" aspects in that area too.

  2. Kevin Lynch from ComBlu LLC, December 30, 2011 at 3:08 p.m.

    The investment arm of the CIA was an early funder of Visible Technologies, a prominent social media monitoring service.

  3. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, December 30, 2011 at 11:13 p.m.

    I was going to say something, but, "Stay Silent My Friends."

  4. Daniel Soschin from Speaker & Blogger, January 8, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.

    Companies spy on each other a million times a day through the same software. Most of the commercial software is based upon early algorithms developed by DARPA, DoD, etc... The private sector simply packaged it up and marketed it as social media monitoring and measurement software.

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