U.S. Government Using Facebook For Surveillance

Did you know the American Government is now monitoring social networking sites to try to identify immigration fraud? As The Huffington Post puts it, Big Brother really is watching you!

Did you know the American Government is now monitoring social networking sites to try to identify immigration fraud? As The Huffington Post puts it, Big Brother really is watching you!

In documents obtained by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services advises staff how to infiltrate social networks for the equivalent of an “unannounced cyber ‘site-visit’ on a petitioners and beneficiaries”. The document, Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS [Office of Fraud Detection and National Security] [PDF], states:

“Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of ‘friends’ link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.

“Generally, people on these sites speak honestly in their network because all of their friends and family are interacting with them via lM’s (Instant Messages), Blogs (Weblog journals), etc. This social networking gives FDNS an opportunity to reveal fraud by browsing these sites to see if petitioners and beneficiaries are in a valid relationship or are attempting to deceive CIS about their relationship. Once a user posts online, they create a public record and timeline of their activities. In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber “site-visit” on a petitioners and beneficiaries.”

EFF points out a few problems with the agency’s approach.

“The memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target. Nor does the memo address whether or not DHS agents must reveal their government affiliation or even their real name during the friend request, leaving open the possibility that agents could actively deceive online users to infiltrate their social networks and monitor the activities of not only that user, but also the user’s friends, family, and other associates.

“Finally, the memo makes several assumptions about social networking users that are not necessarily grounded in truth and reveal the author’s lack of understanding of the ways people use social networking sites. First the memo engages in armchair psychology by assuming a large friend network indicates “narcissistic tendencies.” Second, and perhaps more disturbing, the memo assumes a user’s online profile always accurately reflects her offline life. While Facebook and MySpace would like their users’ profiles to always be current and accurate, users may have valid reasons for keeping some of their offline life out of their online profiles (for example, many users still feel their relationship status is private). Unfortunately, this memo 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.”

Even if you have nothing to hide, I think making friends with strangers on Facebook is bad policy. If someone has an ulterior motive, I wouldn’t want them anywhere near my profile regardless of how innocent I am. I imagine it would be easy for an agent to easily misconstrue what you say – and don’t say – online. While the truth would hopefully surface by the end of the investigation, why would you want to create that kind of hassle for yourself? While this memo is specifically about immigration, I imagine other arms of government and perhaps private companies such as insurance companies might also be using these methods.

However, even if you are scrupulously careful about who you friend, maybe the government can access your account anyway. I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at Facebook but I do know that the courts are yet to decide definitively if Facebook content is legally considered private.

Maybe Facebook should start carrying a Miranda warning? “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”