The FBI ‘Can Neither Confirm nor Deny’ That It Monitors Your Social Media Posts

In recent years, the federal government has significantly ramped up its efforts to monitor people on social media. The FBI, for one, has repeatedly acknowledged that it engages in surveillance of social media posts. So it was surprising when the bureau responded to our Freedom of Information Act request on this kind of surveillance by saying that it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.”

The six other federal agencies we submitted the FOIA request to haven’t produced a single document. The request, filed last May, seeks information on how the agencies collect and analyze posts from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

 

Today we sued the agencies to get some answers, because the public has a right to know about the exact nature of social media surveillance — especially whether agencies are monitoring and retaining social media posts, or using surveillance products that label activists and people of color as threats to public safety based on their First Amendment-protected activities.

Based on what little information is publicly available, it’s clear that the federal government routinely tracks domestic social media users, with a particular focus on immigrants.

For example, according to official government websites, the FBI has sought to create an application that would enable it to “instantly search and monitor” information on social media platforms. It completed detailed documentation stating that it intended to contract with Dataminr, a data analytics and machine-learning vendor that we previously called out for sharing data with federal “fusion centers,”  to obtain “the mission critical social media monitoring needed by the FBI.” And it contracted with Pen-Link, another big data analytics firm, for “software that parses and analyzes social media data.”

Meanwhile, the State Department has announced plans to collect usernames from nearly all of the 14.7 million people who annually apply for work or tourist visas. And the Department of Homeland Security and its agencies have repeatedly expanded their manual and automated social media surveillance in efforts that include the misguided “extreme vetting initiative.”

Federal law enforcement surveillance of social media associated with Black Lives Matter has already been exposed, continuing a decades-long pattern of government monitoring of minority activists and communities. 

The government could be using commercial surveillance software to conduct this surveillance:  Documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California in 2016 revealed how companies marketing this software had built products specifically for law enforcement monitoring. The disclosure of the documents resulted in policy changes from Twitter and Facebook.

Social media surveillance raises a number of red flags. First, it discourages people from speaking freely — a phenomenon that research and studies bear out.

Indeed, in its letter responding to our FOIA request, the FBI said that simply acknowledging its use of social media surveillance would “risk circumvention of the law.” The bureau seems to be saying that if people knew that the government is monitoring what they’re saying on social media, they’d be less likely to say it. That looks like an admission of the chilling effect that the First Amendment aims to prevent. But because almost all online speech is lawful, it doesn’t make sense to argue that social media users are “circumventing” the law if they limit what they say online.

Aside from chilling expression, government monitoring of social media raises the risk that innocent people will be wrongly investigated or put on government watchlists based on that speech.

It’s clear from already public information that all of the agencies we’re targeting in our FOIA lawsuit engage in manual and automated surveillance of social media users and their speech, and it’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying. 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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Anonymous

Most judges have great integrity, but most seem to not understand Cointelpro style blacklisting. It’s very similar to the tactics of East Germany during the Cold War. What makes this type of non-confrontational blacklisting so dangerous is it robs it’s crime victims - innocent Americans - of “legal standing” in court to challenge a genuinely evil practice. Many, if not most, Americans targeted by these felonious and cowardly tactics may not even realize they have been attacked by powerful federal agencies. If you are not even aware of it, you can’t file a local police report or file a court case to reform this type of corruption. Judges could minimize these felony crimes, by federal officials, by mandating - by law - that all surveillance be documented into the following categories: 1) Surveillance performed with a recent probable cause judicial warrant.
2) Surveillance performed following a recent crime with evidence pointing to a suspect but without judicial warrant.
3) Surveillance based on mere suspicion without warrant or evidence.

If judges would demand this data, under penalty of perjury, it would likely paint a very disturbing portrait. Probably the vast majority of warrantless domestic spying lacks either probable or reasonable suspicion at the local, state and federal levels. In other words that suggests Americans may be getting penalized for Facebook posts, supporting an unpopular group and other guaranteed freedoms under our Bill of Rights. Judges with integrity may want to research the congressional “Church Committee Reports” published in the 1970’s on the federal government’s criminal abuses against Martin Luther King, Jr and years later Fred Hampton (assassinated by the FBI under the Cointelpro program using local police). Almost 20 years after 9/11, which the ACLU warned of Cointelpro returning, judges need to provide Judicial Review over the political branches ASAP!

Anonymous

Excellant post, sounds reasonable.

Anonymous

I don't get.
If you make a posting on a public platform, anyone can see it. That includes the FBI. If you don't want people to read your postings, don't make posts.

Anonymous

It’s more than your posts themselves that are tracked.

Anonymous

Not true. You can set your privacy settings to Friends only, or to include or exclude certain people. You also may belong to a Facebook group, which means if you post on the group, only those accepted into the group can read your posts.

Anonymous

They aren't just "reading" your posts. They are saving this data indefinitely.

The problem with the argument "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you should have nothing to hide", is that it is a misplaced trust in government entities to not abuse the data. You don't need to engage in any criminal behavior at all for the data collected in bulk to have negative consequences for you. And if you still aren't convinced that this is government overreach, ask yourself, while you may be ok with this practice in the present, can you also trust all future government officials to never abuse this data?

Anonymous

If you think the FBI needs to be added to your Facebook group to see your comments, you have missed the boat.

Anonymous

If the FBI would start honoring their constitutional Oath of Office - to uphold the U.S. Constitution - this would be less of a concern. Unfortunately most agencies, including the FBI, have a long documented history of the exact opposite loyalty. The Oath of Office includes having fidelity to the 4th Amendment and other individuals rights. The loyalty oath prohibits guilt-by-association or targeting a particular religion. In other words, sometimes these well-meaning officials, acting as censors, view perfectly legal exercises as obscene, wrong or immoral. Their job is not the “Thought-Police”. Under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court draws those legal lines, not Executive Branch censors. For example: during the JIm Crow era, federal agencies, including the FBI, were trying to catch Baptist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. committing (legal) adultery. When that didn’t succeed female FBI agents called King’s wife masquerading as mistresses. There was no crime or probable cause of any crime, FBI agents committed premeditated felony crimes trying to fabricate (legal) immorality. In 2019, these are the kinds of people judging your Facebook posts. Nobody has to pass a “sainthood test” to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. Some censors don’t view it that way, everyone should worry about this type of censorship even if you aren’t breaking any law!

Anonymous

For the above comment. It goes beyond the front-facing facade of Facebook itself, and links directly to device data that has authenticated Facebook to run on it. From geo-location and temporal data, to frequent travel routes, cookies initiated by searches on the device, among other digital metadata. If you've done a clean scrub of all allowances of Facebook to your device (Microphone, Photos, Google accounts, games accounts, etc.) then well done, except Facebook does hold other digital social media entities, such as Instagram, and I'm certain your Instagram has access to your photos, microphone, and web searches when logged in. Even a deleted and deactivated account on these platforms still collects data, and remains in hibernation. Welcome to the database.

Anonymous

Next time you send a private email just bcc the Chinese embassy

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