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The IRS is Taking a Page From the NSA's Playbook and Snooping on Social Media

Credit: Franco Bouly/wikimediaCredit: Franco Bouly/wikimediaIf you thought you were frustrated with filing your taxes recently this post will probably not help.

According to Marketplace the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which loses an estimated $300 billion due to tax evasion every year, is using data from social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in order to investigate those who don't file taxes or file suspicious returns.

From Marketplace:

We're all just trying to get through this time of year without losing our shirts and—of course—without getting audited. The IRS is kicking into high gear, too. Their goals are a bit different than ours, though. The agency is hoping to catch tax dodgers. It loses an estimated $300 billion a year to tax evasion, and getting that money isn’t getting easier. Because of budget cuts, the IRS will have fewer auditing agents than at any time since the 1980s.

Enter robots. After all, the IRS may not have a whole lot of money or manpower, but it has a gold mine of data on you. A lot of it from... well... you.

"It’s hard to believe that anybody who puts anything on Facebook has any legitimate expectation of privacy," says Edward Zelinsky, a professor of tax law at the Cordozo School of Law.

Those fancy vacation photos you posted on Instagram? The Facebook status update about your new car? The tweets about your wildly successful side business?

All fair game for the IRS.

This sort of social media mining is nothing new to the National Security Agency (NSA).

In September CNN reported on information leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which revealed that the intelligence agency was collecting social media data on American citizens. From CNN:

In addition to phone records and email logs, the National Security Agency uses Facebook and other social media profiles to create maps of social connections -- including those of American citizens.

The revelation was disclosed by the New York Times on Sunday, using documents provided to the newspaper by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

"We assume as Americans that if somebody in the government is looking at your information, it's because they have a reason, because you're suspected of a crime," Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, told CNN.

But the documents do not specify how many Americans' social connections have been analyzed, or whether any have been implicated in wrongdoing.

In February 2012 it was reported that the FBI was seeking the ability to scan social media sites for information.

From CBC News:

Hundreds of intelligence analysts already sift overseas Twitter and Facebook posts to track events such as the Arab Spring. But in a formal "request for information’’ from potential contractors, the FBI recently outlined its desire for a digital tool to scan the entire universe of social media — more data than humans could ever crunch.

The Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also have solicited the private sector for ways to automate the process of identifying emerging threats and upheavals using the billions of posts people around the world share every day.

"Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists,’’ the FBI wrote in its request. "Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting.’’

Yesterday FBI Director James Comey said that the agency can monitor the Internet without compromising privacy in order to tackle computer crime, "The Internet is a dangerous neighborhood. We need to be there to patrol it."

From The Post-Crescent:

FBI Director James Comey was in Milwaukee to visit local law enforcement officers as part of an effort to visit all 56 of the agency’s field offices. He met with reporters afterward, taking questions about FBI efforts to target violent crimes, stem the tide of heroin abuse and combat human trafficking.

He was also asked about cybersecurity issues, including the Target Corp. data breach and recent revealing of the Heartbleed glitch, which has caused major security concerns across the Internet. He was asked how the government balances fighting crime with respecting Americans’ liberty.

Comey said he rejected the idea that liberty and security can’t co-exist. He said security improves liberty by getting rid of people who would do harm, leaving more freedom for citizens who use the Internet for legitimate reasons.

The Internet is “where children play, it’s where our social lives are, it’s where our health care is, it’s where our money is. Everything is there — and so that’s where bad people come to get those things,” he said. “… The Internet is a dangerous neighborhood. We need to be there to patrol it. And by being there in a responsible, lawful, carefully overseen way, we can enhance both security and liberty.”

If the IRS' monitoring of social media doesn't have you angry enough, think about the fact that the agency is reportedly considering taxing free work perks such as gym memberships and food.

From Fox News:

In competitive job markets like Silicon Valley, companies are doing everything they can to entice the best and brightest -- offering freebies that have become the stuff of legend.

Employee perks like free food at lavish cafeterias, laundry and even yoga are not unheard of.

But the taxman could soon crack down.

The IRS reportedly is looking at these perks and seeing if these companies need to start paying up for the free stuff they offer employees.

David Gamage, a tax expert and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said it would really boil down to who benefits from these perks.

"To what extent is this intended as a perk, a form of compensation, for the benefit of the employee, or to what extent is this just another way the employer gets the employee to work harder and longer and do things for the benefit of the employer?" he said.

If it's the latter, then it's harder for the IRS to tax it.

Reason on the IRS

Ed Krayewski looks at where our tax dollars go.

J.D. Tuccille praises tax scofflaws.

Emily Ekins writes about the Reason-Rupe Poll's finding that 76 percent of Americans think that charities would have spent their tax money as well or better than the government.

More from Reason on the IRS here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Of course even the distinction proposed is arbitrary. Isn't all compensation designed to get the employee to work harder? If you didn't pay them their salary, they wouldn't be doing any work for you at all. This is yet another reason why income taxes are stupid and destructive, and the IRS should be abolished.

    *Don't audit me, bro!*

  • lap83||

    This wouldn't bother me if I thought it was just about investigating suspects of tax evasion, that seems like a worthy reason actually. My brother is a PI and he uses social media all the time to look for evidence of insurance fraud. The problem is that the IRS has gone so far beyond it's main function. I can definitely see them using social media to aid in targeting certain groups, for example.

  • Roger Wilco||

    I share a lot of Reason articles on my FB page... I'll bet that puts me on a list of "potential tax-avoiders"

  • Free Society||

    Tax evasion is exactly like "mugging evasion". It's moral to defend oneself and one's property from the predations of criminals.

    Insurance fraud is nothing like tax evasion. Taxation is an involuntary transaction. Insurance contracts are voluntary transactions, where misrepresentation or fraud does constitute and actual crime.

  • West Texas||

    I just can't get worked up about this. The problem is - what most Americans just don't realize - is that the IRS is just doing its job. It's supposed to define what is and isn't income (including defining non-profit groups) and once it's made that determination, it's supposed to go out and collect taxes on that income. Why wouldn't they look at social media? Why wouldn't they tax meals as compensation?

    The problem isn't that the system is, "inefficient" or run by a "few bad actors". The problem is with the entire system itself. A vast majority of Americans think income tax is just a way of the world and many of them justify intrusive income taxes by pointing at functions of government. Well duh, but who says government funding can only come from income taxes? We can fund the government just as easily with a sales tax or fair tax or VAT (so long as we constitutionally prohibit income taxes, first).

    Seriously, any politician who says he's for privacy and liberty but then doesn't work to eliminate the income tax paradigm is a goddam liar. You can't have both, as these stories illustrate.

  • Free Society||

    According to Marketplace the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which loses an estimated $300 billion due to tax evasion every year,

    You must have right of ownership, or at least possession, before you can claim they lost anything. That $300 billion is a figure that represents the amount of money would-be victims were able to prevent from being stolen.

  • Tonio||

    That's a pet peeve of mine with journalists, that they always uncritically report how such and such a business or government agency "lost" money. The money is rarely actually lost so much as they didn't get the amount of money they expected.

  • Number 2||

    ""It’s hard to believe that anybody who puts anything on Facebook has any legitimate expectation of privacy," says Edward Zelinsky, a professor of tax law at the Cordozo School of Law."

    REALLY?? Then why are states like New Jersey and loudmouths like Nancy Pelosi passing and proposing laws prohibiting employers from demanding information from employees' social media sites? If they have no legitimate expectation of privacy, shouldn't anyone be permitted to obtain information from there?

  • Paul.||

    You know who else monitors social media?

  • crazydaisy||

    This is great. Thanks! vacation rental homes in las vegas

  • ||

    The lawful way to avoid these privacy intrusions is to vote for Libertarian candidates who believe in smaller government and liberty.

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