The FBI Won't Say if It Spies on Your Social Media Posts. Cue the Lawsuit!

"We shouldn't have to think about self-censoring what we say online."


Piotr Trojanowski/

It's not really a secret that the FBI is in the business of monitoring social media posts. What's less clear is why, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked for records related to that surveillance, the bureau refused to acknowledge their existence. That's just one question a lawsuit filed yesterday by the ACLU and its Northern California affiliate seeks to answer.

Last May, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with seven government agencies "seeking the release of records pertaining to the federal government's social media surveillance," according to the lawsuit. It's been nearly eight months since then, and not one of those agencies has complied. The resulting lawsuit seeks "to enforce the public's right about the Defendant federal agencies' surveillance of social media and speech."

"Little information is available to the public on the tools and methods Defendants use to conduct surveillance of social media users and speech, or any policies and guidelines that govern such surveillance," says the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California-Oakland Division. "The public interest in the release of these records is clear. Because the government's growing use of social media surveillance implicates the online speech of millions of social media users, U.S. citizens and residents of all backgrounds have an urgent need to understand the exact nature, extent, and consequences of that surveillance."

Various federal agencies do have a documented history of monitoring people's social media activity. In some cases, they haven't been particularly secretive about it.

Consider the FBI. Back in 2012, the bureau published a request for information as part of an effort to enlist contractors to help build a social media monitoring system. In 2016, Vice reported that the FBI was using a tool called SocioSpyder to monitor sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for "incriminating data." And as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) noted last June, the FBI is believed to have utilized the contractor Dataminr "to monitor in real-time more than 500 million daily tweets."

Yet the bureau responded to the ACLU's FOIA request by saying it "could neither confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to your request."

The ACLU is also suing the departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security, as well as three agencies under the DHS umbrella: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Of particular issue to the ACLU are the government's alleged efforts to more closely monitor immigrants' social media profiles. The defendants "have ramped up the monitoring and retention of immigrants' and visa applicants social media information, including for the purpose of conducting what the Trump administration has called 'extreme vetting' or 'visa lifecycle vetting,'" the suit reads.

For instance, EPIC points out that the State Department has been asking visa applicants to disclose their social media handles. The DHS, meanwhile, said in September 2017 that it wanted to "expand the categories of records" for all immigrants "to include…social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results."

"There's a growing trend at the Department of Homeland Security to be snooping on the social media of immigrants and foreigners and we think it's an invasion of privacy and deters freedom of speech," Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed News at the time.

The ACLU suit asks the court to search for and release all records related to the defendants' social media monitoring. "It's unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying," ACLU attorneys Hugh Handeyside and Matt Cagle write in a blog post about the suit. "The public needs to know how the government is watching us—and we shouldn't have to think about self-censoring what we say online."

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  1. FBI spying on you? Just spy right back.

    1. Hi Dajjal,

      From your link…

      My contention is that all countries must immediately establish freedom of speech and religion and the US must stop supporting the ones who don’t, including Israel. And yes, the FBI must stop trying to ‘lure’ people into plots. If you have evidence then fine. But basing an investigation on someone’s ‘radical beliefs’ is a witch hunt and blatantly unconstitutional. Millions of brave Americans fought and died for our rights. I haven’t forgotten their sacrifice. Have you?

      I agree with you… However, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are even bigger anti-freedom shitholes than Israel is. We need to stop supporting them as well… Plus endless other shitholes as well, sad to say…

      “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the corrupt, even evil, root-thought of a LOT of this crap…

      1. Maybe but I literally cannot get enough of this guy.

  2. we shouldn’t have to think about self-censoring what we say online

    Not that anyone does or would.

    1. The notion that Americans should not be called upon to censor themselves is dangerous baloney. Those who do not engage in proper self-censorship risk being arrested, prosecuted and jailed for committing speech crimes. No one, for example, has the right to “express” himself in an uncensored manner with inappropriately deadpan “parody” emails aimed at damaging (no matter how truthfully) the reputation of an academic department chairman. We have gone to considerable lengths to make this clear here at NYU, calling in security forces, including the police, when necessary, and our view of this matter has been fully confirmed by the courts. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

  3. “””The public needs to know how the government is watching us””

    If people are not outraged by the fact it’s happening, why does the how matter?

    1. Like “we owe the National Debt to ourselves”, “we’re watching ourselves”.

    2. Government domestic spying is the equivalent of throwing a single, big weapon into a gang fight. Both gangs would be better off without it, but in true prisoner’s dilemma fashion, neither can unilaterally avoid it. So each gang wields the weapon when they can, doing tremendous damage to the other side, until the other side gets control of the weapon, and round and round it goes.

  4. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit! No part of government is above doing slimy things…

    1. Totally agree with you sister… Finally someone on this website with the BIGGEST balls to say what I’m sure we all were thinking! Great comment as usual! Your insights resonate with me deeply! Just wondering, where do you get your ideas from?

      1. Well don’t post his spam link for him.

  5. Is the unit shut down right now due to the part of the government shut down? If so, I want to go on a twitters rant.

    1. Good question; I don’t know…

      I bet you my last dollar that, along with all the forces of Government Almighty that are authorized to shoot you dead, the forces of Government Almighty that are authorized to spy on you willy-nilly without end, without court authorization, are NOT subject to shut-down as well!

  6. It’s been nearly eight months since then, and not one of those agencies has complied.

    Obviously the solution is to post this outrage all over Facebook and Twitter!


      It Might Be Aliens. But We Have No Idea What to Do About It.

      We are equally powerless to prevent the spying of the Feds, as we are powerless to prevent the spying of the space aliens, I tell ya!

      I have good news, though, from my personal experience…

      Now I the SQRLSY One am actually John Kerry (I trust you not to tell anyone, ’cause I observed y’all pinky-swearing not to, and breaking my trust would be a NAP violation, and I know y’all are all good Libertarians).

      Anyway, after I served in ‘Nam on that “swift boat”, the CIA implanted a radio bug in one of my molars, in 1976, to try and make sure I didn’t blab too much about all the top-secret things I did over there. They thought I didn’t know about this “CIA mole”, but I did.

      Did y’all know that a “CIA mole” is a molar implant, made out of 6.02 X 10-to-the 23d-power atoms of unobtanium? Only VERY important people (like me) are important enough to get one of these “CIA moles” implanted in our teeth? People like MEEE, unlike you common low scum-dogs, ya know?

      1. Well anyway, from 1976 all the way to 2000, for 24 long-long years, I searched high and low for a dentist to take out my “CIA mole”, and they ALL denied me; they ALL denied that I had one!!! Simply ’cause they ALL are owned by Government Almighty, what with this licensing thing!

        The story DOES have a good ending though? At Y2K rollover, the micro-chip in my “CIA mole” stopped working!!! I have been free for 18 years now!!!

  7. nice to see ACLU acting in useful manner

  8. “We shouldn’t have to think about self-censoring what we say online.”

    I wish I lived in his solar system.

    1. Yes, I agree… Threaten to kill just about anyone, online, and that’s OK, because they are peons… Your threat is just a joke…

      I dare you to post a post about threatening to kill the Emperor-POTUS (or even a fed judge), and then see if we truly are all equal, or if perhaps some are more equal than others!

  9. Not sure this holds water. Is it really “spying” if what they are looking at is on a public forum? If you are walking down the street holding a kilo of cocaine and a cop sees it, it is not considered an illegal search.

    1. Isn’t spying supposed to be surreptitious? You don’t know you’re being watched.

      When I make public posts on social media, I don’t have any expectation of privacy. I just assume that government employees are the only people that even read that shit.

  10. Here’s to hoping the 1st EMP strikes over the NSA facility in Utah.


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