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US federal agencies use social networks to spy on Americans

By Stephanie Dearing     Oct 15, 2010 in Internet
Social networking sites enable participants to share their lives with their friends and family. With millions of people using sites such as Facebook, such sites are prime targets for agencies seeking to gather intelligence.
Social networking websites are now an integral part of daily life for many people, and as it is for the public, so it is for those responsible for providing security services. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a lawsuit that protests the collection of intelligence information via surveillance of Americans through social media networks. EFF said that while there have been stories emerging in the media about security interests surveying social networks prior to major events such as protests, "... to date the public has not seen such detailed information about the government’s approach to monitoring, especially on its data preservation practices. As our FOIA lawsuit continues, we hope to learn more about such activities and help bring further transparency and accountability to the ways in which government agencies and law enforcement officials collect and analyze information about us online."
The law suit was filed jointly by EFF and a number of other organizations against a handful of American federal agencies, including the CIA, FBI and Citizenship and Immigration on December 1, 2009 "... for refusing to disclose their policies for using social networking sites for investigations, data-collection, and surveillance."
Recently the US government released a document to EFF under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) related to the lawsuit that outlines plans the government had to monitor social networking sites "... leading up to President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration, DHS established a Social Networking Monitoring Center (SNMC) to monitor social networking sites for “items of interest.” In a set of slides [PDF] outlining the effort, DHS discusses both the massive collection and use of social network information as well as the privacy principles it sought to employ when doing so.
While it is laudable to see DHS discussing the Fair Information Practice Principles [PDF] as part of the design for such a project, the breadth of sites targeted is concerning. For example, among the key “Candidates for Analysis” were general social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Flickr as well as sites that focus specifically on certain demographic groups such as MiGente and BlackPlanet, news sites such as NPR, and political commentary sites DailyKos. According to the slides, SNMC looks for “‘items of interest’ in the routine of social networking posts on the events, organizations, activities, and environment” of important events. While the slides indicate that DHS scrutinized the information and emphasized the need to look at credible sources, evidence, and corroboration, they also suggest the DHS collected a massive amount of data on individuals and organizations explicitly tied to a political event."
In late September, TechNewsWorld reported that US federal law enforcement agencies were drafting new legislation that would allow those agencies the authority to monitor the internet, including private emails, encrypted communication systems (think Blackberry) and peer-to-peer communication via software such as Skype.
The New York Times said the United States has an existing law, established in 1994, called the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. The newspaper explained the law saying "... It aimed to ensure that government surveillance abilities would remain intact during the evolution from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cellphones.
Often, investigators can intercept communications at a switch operated by the network company. But sometimes — like when the target uses a service that encrypts messages between his computer and its servers — they must instead serve the order on a service provider to get unscrambled versions.
Like phone companies, communication service providers are subject to wiretap orders. But the 1994 law does not apply to them. While some maintain interception capacities, others wait until they are served with orders to try to develop them."
Private citizens are facing the erosion of internet privacy not just from law enforcement circles, but also from corporations wishing to gather data for their customers. For example, Information Age quoted security expert Bruce Schneier as having "... cited Facebook as the most heinous example of social networks cashing in on users' openness toward sharing personal details. "Don't make the mistake of thinking you're Facebook's customer, you're not – you're the product," Schneier said. "Its customers are the advertisers.""
New technology, such as smart meters, also pose privacy concerns for citizens.
In a report titled The 2007 International Privacy Ranking, released by Privacy International, the United States was not only identified as an "endemic surveillance society," the country was also ranked as one of the worst offenders when it came to protecting its citizen's privacy.
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