Consumer watchdog group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has initiated a lawsuit against multiple U.S. government agencies for failing to disclose their policies regarding the use of social media for surveillance. According to the filing, the government has been making use of social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter to aid in various investigations where the alleged crimes range from the relatively minor infringement of underage drinking, to more serious endeavors, such as the coordination of protesters during the G-20 summit. However, when requests were made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for details about governmental policies, several agencies failed to respond with information regarding what data is collected, under what circumstances and who has access to it.

About the Suit

The EFF is working with the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law on this lawsuit. The clinic filed the original FOIA requests on EFF's behalf and later filed the suit when government agencies refused to respond. 

Named in suit are the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Treasury, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Justice, which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, among others.

The filing mentions several recent media articles where criminals have been apprehended due to government surveillance of social networking sites, including the case of Maxi Sopo, whose Facebook status updates led to his arrest on bank fraud charges. Another example involved programmer Aaron Swartz, who helped an open-government activist with the collection of millions of public and free court records. His activities led to a full-scale FBI investigation, as detailed here in this Wired article. Twitter's name also came up when, as mentioned above, the service was used to notify G-20 summit protesters of police movements.

Although this suit may lead some to believe the EFF is against the practice of utilizing social networking sites for investigative purposes, that is not the case. The filing notes that government use is "often for laudable reasons" - they just want the scope clarified so as to prevent abuse.

Social Media Investigations are the New Wiretap

No longer solely used by tech-savvy individuals, social networks have seen explosive growth over recent years. Sites which at one time catered only to the young - such as Facebook which began as college-only network - now include demographic groups that range from pre-teens all the way up to grandparents. As more mainstream users join sites such as these, there is a growing need for privacy awareness. Specifically, internet users have the right to know who can access their data as well as when and how it can be used.

Initiatives like Facebook's recent privacy updates are intended to help users maintain some control over that data, but that may not be enough. As graduate student Christopher Soghoian recently revealed on his blog, government agencies routinely request information from the operators of social networks when investigating criminal activities in order to access data users have hidden from public view. In fact, most companies even have documented policies regarding the procedures for requesting this data. For example, Facebook's Subpoena and Search Warrant Guide is here, and MySpace's Law Enforcement Guide is here.

In this new technological age we live in, using social media to gather data and track criminals is commonplace. It's the new wiretap. And while groups like EFF acknowledge that social network surveillance is often used for commendable purposes, people deserve to know what their rights are in this area. Hopefully, this suit will shed some light on that.