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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And to other countries. Facebook sold personal information through Cambridge Analytica, which combined with the Manafort polling data given to Russia -- weaponized their Internet Research Agency (IRA) hacking and disinformation, that was back-supported with Breitbart and Fox . . . allegedly.


Most federal officials are probably good people with good intentions but there is a real danger to our “constitutional democratic republic” form of government if censors are violating the U.S. Constitution. The “democratic” part is vitally important to the United States. We should all want to hear the “maximum” number of vantage points on any particular issue - millions of voters viewing an issue from their unique vantage point. Government censors, like FBI officials, may be patriotic and well-meaning but they do have have “bias” merely due to their own vantage point. Most censors have chosen to waive many of their own constitutional rights (like personal privacy) and most censors benefit from a big-government worldview. It doesn’t make the government officials bad people but they may be totally tone-deaf to regular Americans that never chose to waive their guaranteed constitutional rights or that don’t receive government salaries and benefits. Their personal bias colors the way a government-censor might interpret a Facebook post. They might find it suspicious that most Americans consider their private information “private” (nobody’s business including government censors. Many government censors seem to buy into the non-sense “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you shouldn’t mind us snooping into your business”. It should be noted that the Freedom of Information Act is a federal statute - it’s the law! Censors of any kind may want to do an online search for “Michael German interview with Vice magazine” around 2014 or so. German worked as an FBI agent specializing in domestic terrorism. German made the point that it’s more productive to minimize or focus your attention only on people where there is genuine probable cause or reasonable suspicion. German was essentially saying if you make the “haystack” of suspects larger, it’s actually harder to find the “needles” (real bad guys).
In other words dragnet-policing is a dumb practice, minimize warrantless domestic spying and only focus on the cases with the strongest evidence. The ACLU is not anti-FBI and not anti-police, their supporters are pro Bill of Rights!


I've never been on Facebook, nor have I ever had a membership. I trust their backstabbing weasel CEO even less than I do the current administration in Washington, DC.

I honestly would rather have a paroled mass murderer living in the neighborhood than Mark Zuckerberg. At least the parolee would keep a low profile and stay out of trouble whereas Zuckerberg would try to hack into everyone's data and sell it to who knows who.

The day I have anything to do with Facebook is the day Hell freezes over.


except that if you have an iPhone, your information is on facebook anyway if your contact information is uploaded to facebook by one of your contacts (who are on facebook and whom facebook encourages to upload their contacts to their facebook account)


Are they collecting this information from accounts that aren't using any security settings? If you don't use your security settings then there is no expectation of privacy. Also, we already can't say whatever we want on social media because the sites, themselves, censor everything.


computer and cell phone privacy settings don’t stop the owners of iphone, cloud, google, etc. there are a bunch of billionaires and people can buy your data as it’s typed or spoken. Privacy is a thing of the past. Some security methods to prove we are us for our safety are being sold as we speak to grocery stores and airports so facial recognition may protect you superficially but bad luck if you look just like an illegal person or are their twin! The main point ii hate is the tremendously intrusive nature that large online entities have become for the sake of profit. they act like little boys in men’s bodies who think other people’s lives are a game.


If it's legal and it assists with the prosecution of criminals, go for it.


Bigger issue. Apparently Congress slipped in a new clause into "constitutionally-defining" federal statutes (like Title 18 US Code 245). Constitutional rights, like 14th Amendment rights, are also defined in federal statutes (what is a constitutional violation? Range of penalties for constitutional law-breakers). FBI agents trespassing past our Facebook Privacy filters (without a judicial warrant) actually violates 18 USC 245 and "pattern & practice" statutes. An FBI agent could arrest a local official for violating our 1st & 4th Anendment rights under statutes like 18 USC 245. Congress added an unconstitutional exemption for the U.S. Department of Justice, making federal officials exempt from Bill of Rights "restraints". Essentially Congress has made Cointelpro (previously a felony) and like tactics legal. Article VI and the 9th Amendment contradicts this meaning by Congress. If the system were working property, the John Roberts' Court would remove the unconstitutional parts of "constitutionally defining" statutes like 18 USC 245 and the Civil Rights Act to include "restraints" for the U.S. Attorney General and the DOJ along with every other agency. Alexander Hamilton, architect of the American Justice System, believed "constitutionality should always trump legal precedent. The U.S. Constitution has never been anended to exempt federal officials from constitutional law breaking. Today in 2019, what John Ashcroft did illegally and fraudulently abusing the federal "Matetial Witness Statute" as a (covert) false imprisonment tool would be legal. Congress does not have the authority to pardon past felonies, only presidents have that authority following a conviction.


After reading the above lawsuit, this is likely the reality: there will be a market for typewriters, flip-phones, separate GPS and non-internet connected devices. Government won’t protect our guaranteed and individual constitutional rights - it won’t ever happen. Courts probably lack the wherewithal to police the Executive Branch agencies even if they wanted to.


I think they are running softwear to keep posts from some people showing up onto some threads. I post on sites like Sen. Bernie's and get no replyes, or reactions, but posts dated before, and after get 70 or more. Something to look into.


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