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

It's way more than your posts being tracked. Once those are tracked then your physical movements may be tracked, 24/7/365. For years. With your car being tracked too btw. And folks patrolling by your house on foot. And you cant go to a lawyer because who will believe you and who can you point to to say that so and so is doing this because there's not a uniform in sight.

Ira Dember

As this article notes, "Social media surveillance...discourages people from speaking freely". In other words, it changes behavior.

The FBI's "neither confirm nor deny" statement itself creates a chilling effect, an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty — aka the FUD factor: fear, uncertainty, doubt. The message: Be careful what you say on social media. Be very careful.

Spreading fear among We the People to change our behavior is precisely the definition of TERRORISM.

Anonymous

Does it change people's behavior? Most people are already very careful about what they put on social media because the social media sites censor people and block accounts. Employers and potential employers also monitor employees accounts and probably cause more people to carefully consider what they post than the government. Then there is the liberal thought police that will happily launch a life shattering camaign against anyone who expresses a point of view that they don't like. I'm actually surprised anyone is still posting anything that could be of value to our intelligence communities.

Anonymous

This is the sort of work the ACLU once performed - before it became an agent for foreign immigrants.

Anonymous

The bandits within Trumps government and their allies in zeus’s is and White supremacy are making USA people who disagree with Trumps Nazi agenda, into wrong doers. The current truth about internet today is there is always an indelible history recorded of all our movements, also posts, emails and social media comments are being sold to the highest bidder, this has been escalating in this leadership. there is no safe place online or on a cell phone and our past history can never truly be deleted our photos can never really be deleted they always will remain accessible to the tyrants who believe the republican white males are the only good entities in existence. in some countries under similar oppression religious worship and or specific ideology become the only legal way to be. we are way to late to stop the internet crimes which he rich are committing. I so much appreciate ACLU for all they do in attempt to enlighten us about this totally inhuman spying.

Anonymous

I don’t have any problem with the FBI reading anything that I post, the corporations, and businesses that are gathering data from “everyone’s” social media accounts, web browsing history, and other miscellaneous sources in order to target what political propaganda you are exposed to are the bigger danger to Freedom then the FBI have ever been.

SgrA*

Ohh, ACLU, I've often wondered if you could be persuaded or subpoenaed by law enforcement for analytics on those who participate on these comment pages, to include myself. But there are data sniffers all along the comms pathway that could probably enumerate the details without any cooperation or legal coercion.

Darren Chaker

Thank you for taking the time to inform people who are not on top of how intelligence gathering works these days as it is both scary, but insightful too. For those who truly value privacy, don't post much on individualized social platforms that are linked to you individually. Consider logging in from TOR and use IM apps like Wickr that do not need a phone number to coordinate group meetings or have privacy conversations. I wish everyone here the best in your pursuit of privacy!

Anonymous

Welcome to China.
The only difference is in China you can actually get a job and walk across the street without being harassed by homeless people or mugged by poor person or killed by police cause your wallet.
America is a failed state, it’s time break up the union and start over.

steve coon

The ACLU should be as concerned about private-sector surveillance and data collection from such companies as Facebook and Amazon as it is about government activities. The private-sector is more of a threat because these companies sell what they learn about us to other businesses.

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