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12/2/2009
06:02 PM
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Government Surveillance Of Social Networks Challenged

Policies governing the usage of social network data remain unclear at many government agencies.

The U.S. government's use of social networks as an investigatory tool is being challenged by two legal advocacy organizations.

On Tuesday, The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law filed a lawsuit against six government agencies seeking to force the disclosure of policies governing the use of social networking sites for investigations, data-collection, and surveillance.

The lawsuit follows over a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking this information from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of Treasury, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other agencies.

Many of these FOIA requests went unanswered.

The complaint cites various media reports about how government agencies have used social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, along with social video sites like YouTube, to investigate people and catch criminals.

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

In a phone interview, James Tucker, a member of the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic, said, "We just want to make sure people are aware that this is how this information could possibly be used by their government."

Several agencies and organizations have responded to the FOIA requests, notably the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Army, all of which said they had no relevant documents about using social networks as an investigatory resource, according to Tucker.

Surveillance and intelligence gathering from the Internet and social networks is not just an issue in the U.S.

In early October, Wikileaks published a document from the European INDECT Consortium that describes a system designed to mine Web logs, social networks, online forums, and news reports, and to use that data to generate electronic dossiers detailing online individuals and their links to one another.

InformationWeek Analytics has published a guide to the Open Government Directive and what it means for federal CIOs. Download the report here (registration required).

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