Is the Federal Government on Your Friends List?

Been poked by a Fed lately? Not the usual question on a Twitter feed or Facebook wall...until today. Newly released documents show that Big Brother really does exist and, hey, social networker, he's looking at you.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the San Francisco-based civil liberties group, has published new documents showing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) turned to social media to protect the president and sniff out fraud, going so far as to create a separate entity to track the online world and giving special agents free rein to friend, poke and Tweet away.

The new documents show DHS set up a “Social Networking Monitoring Center” in 2008 to track online activity and look for “items of interest” on social media sites during the inauguration of then president-elect Obama. The Center kept tabs on general social networking sites as well as news, political and demographic-specific sites like NPR, BlackPlanet and DailyKos.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) arm of Homeland Security later authored a memo detailing how National Security and Fraud Detection agents create online profiles to “observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activity.”

The memo encourages agents to exploit the “narcissistic tendencies” of Facebook users and to “friend” prospective citizens on the social network, hoping to find evidence of fraud, like a sham marriage or illegal citizenship. All with the intent of gathering information that agents may otherwise not have access to when conducting an in-person visit.

“In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber ‘site-visit’ on a [sic] petitioners and beneficiaries,” the report reads.

It goes on to provide agents a step-by-step guide on how to create a profile, join someone’s social network and how to effectively “accumulate a large list of friends” by joining more networks and sending out requests. Also included is a Wikipedia link to the full list of social networking sites, from Facebook and MySpace to Digg and Twitter.

EEF obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as part of an ongoing lawsuit against six federal agencies over social network surveillance.

The revelations a reminder of just how much personal information can be revealed through social networking, and how that information, whether true or not, lives on to define you.

The report explains: “Generally, people on these sites speak honestly in their network because all of their friends and family are interacting with them via IM’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.”

This type of language led the EFF to conclude that “users may have valid reasons for keeping some of their offline life out of their online profiles… 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.”

The memo also raises a top privacy rule in social networking: be skeptical of friend requests from people you don’t know.

DHS did not instruct agents to reveal their real names or government affiliation before sending friend requests, so avoiding the surveillance is not as easy as de-friending the request from “FederalAgent123.”

What do you think? Is this justified snooping, or “Big Brother” government gone too far? Will it change the way you social network?