Nanny State

Do You Have Any DHS Agents On Your Friends List?


Because you might, according to documents recently secured by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Two documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request describe how the Department set up a Social Network Monitoring Center before Obama's inauguration in 2008, and how federal law enforcement uses social networking websites to track potential illegal immigrants or fraudsters. The EFF says the following about U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

[C.I.S. is] specifically instructing its agents to attempt to "friend" citizenship petitioners and their beneficiaries on social networks in the hope that these users will (perhaps inadvertently) allow agents to monitor their activities for evidence of suspected fraud, including evidence that their relationships might not live up to the USCIS' standard of a legitimate marriage.

The post goes on to explain how the USCIS's use of social networking "suggests there's nothing to prevent an exaggerated, harmless or even out-of-date off-hand comment in a status update from quickly becoming the subject of a full citizenship investigation." But it also concedes that "there are good reasons for government agencies and law enforcement officials to use all the tools at their disposal, including social networks, to ferret out fraud and other illegal conduct." So just like in the non-social networking "real world" that websites like Facebook try to emulate, there has to be some kind of equitable (and for that matter constitutional) balance between security and civil liberties.

Fair enough. But it's worth asking whether there are even any meaningful parallels between surveillance in the "real world" and surveillance in the online one. 

Unless you're, I don't know, the president of North Korea or something, it's impossible to figure out what absoulely everyone in your society is doing at a given time. And even in North Korea there are some serious (or at least serious from the leadership's perspective) blind spots. Facebook has no blind spots. It's a wealth of freely-available social information that virtually anyone can access at a given time. The surveillance potential is enormous, and so is the possibility of Facebook or Twitter users getting caught up in criminal investigations of which they have absolutely no knowledge. People have even been charged with "crimes" based solely on their online social networking activities. That's why, at the very least, the government needs to be held to extremely high standards of transparency in terms of how it uses social network surveillance as a law enforcement tool. Unfortunately, there's no sign of such standards in the documents unearthed by EFF. EFF's efforts are a reminder of how social networks expand the government's potential to violate the privacy of individuals, and of how vital it is for the first digitally-socialized generation to remain constantly, permanently aware of this.