Sunday, December 13, 2009

Twitter Tapping - government agents tracking public information

An NY TImes editorial Twitter Tapping discusses a Freedom of Information Act suit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. There is widespread understanding that government agents are snooping around social networking sites looking for clues of nefarious activities.

The issue seems to be that various government agencies are hoovering around public social networks like twitter looking for clues. However it's not just public social networks as the editorial mentions Facebook specifically, and most of the social data on Facebook is supposedly under the control of privacy settings.

The editorial explains: The suit seeks to uncover what guidelines these agencies have about this activity, including information about whether agents are permitted to use fake identities or to engage in subterfuge, such as tricking people into accepting Facebook friend requests. For example there's some data on Facebook visible only to "friends" and a fake friend request could give some agency access to otherwise private information.

Something to think about is the distinction between publicly disclosed and privately disclosed information. Twitter is a public site, and every tweet is public. Facebook however is largely private with the information only visible to friends (depending on each users privacy settings). Obviously publicly disclosed information can be freely read by anyone, right? What kind of privacy expectations could one have for tweets or other publicly disclosed postings? Facebook goes to great length to create an illusion of privacy but maybe the government has a special arrangement with Facebook?

The EFF press release (below) has this to say: "Millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook every day, disclosing lots of information about their private lives," said James Tucker, a student working with EFF through the Samuelson Clinic. "As Congress debates new privacy laws covering sites like Facebook, lawmakers and voters alike need to know how the government is already using this data and what is at stake."

The U.S. government has been, for a long time, increasing its ubiquitous surveillance capabilities. It's worthwhile for more to be known about this since Americans have a huge expectation of privacy and belief that "Big Brother" will never happen in America. (see Big Brother is watching us all)

During this decade the "war on terror" has of course been a major concern and it seems some privacy intrusions have been instituted under the guise of finding and stopping terrorism. But does this supposed war on terror justify the government in destroying core qualities of America?

Some of the intrusions are "link analysis" where the FBI is looking at "envelope" information in emails and telephone calls of pretty much everybody. (see: F.B.I. Data Mining Reached Beyond Initial Targets and Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report - New York Times)

Satellite images are an example of public information being consulted by spy agencies. I say "public" because something visible from an orbiting satellite can be seen by any number of commercial or government owned cameras. (see An example of likely legal U.S. spying inside U.S.)

This sort of effort is very similar to the programs under the umbrella Total Information Awareness (TIA) project formerly run by DARPA and (supposedly) canceled. However various elements of the TIA have obviously lived on. The TIA was publicly disclosed 2001, a time before widespread use of social networking websites, but clearly this kind of information hoovering is exactly what the TIA would have developed. (see DARPA's Information Awareness Office, The Total Information Awareness System; Or, Big Brother in-carnate)

Lawsuit Demands Answers About Social-Networking Surveillance

Government Agencies Withholding Information on Data-Gathering from Facebook, Twitter, and Other Online Communities

San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), working with the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Samuelson Clinic), filed suit today against a half-dozen government agencies for refusing to disclose their policies for using social networking sites for investigations, data-collection, and surveillance.

Recent news reports have publicized the government's use of social networking data as evidence in various investigations, and Congress is currently considering several pieces of legislation that may increase protections for consumers who use social-networking websites and other online tools. In response, the Samuelson Clinic made over a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on behalf of EFF to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies, asking for information about how the government collects and uses this sensitive information.

"Millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook every day, disclosing lots of information about their private lives," said James Tucker, a student working with EFF through the Samuelson Clinic. "As Congress debates new privacy laws covering sites like Facebook, lawmakers and voters alike need to know how the government is already using this data and what is at stake."

When several agencies did not respond to the FOIA requests, the Samuelson Clinic filed suit on behalf of EFF. The lawsuit demands immediate processing and release of all records concerning policies for the use of social networking sites in government investigations.

"Internet users deserve to know what information is collected, under what circumstances, and who has access to it," said Shane Witnov, a law student also working on the case. "These agencies need to abide by the law and release their records on social networking surveillance."

For the full complaint:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/social_network/social_networking_FOIA_complaint_final.pdf