David Herron writes on his blog that several US intelligence agencies use social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to gather data about people’s private lives. A study at the University of Berkeley, California, investigates what guidelines some federal agencies follow when it comes to hoovering around social networks.
The Samuelson Clinic made over a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on behalf of EFF to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies, asking for information about how the government collects and uses this sensitive information. When several agencies did not respond to the FOIA requests, the Samuelson Clinic filed suit on behalf of EFF […] The lawsuit demands immediate processing and release of all records concerning policies for the use of social networking sites in government investigations. (from official complaint)
So far, nothing says that the guidelines used by those agencies are unethical: We just don’t know, but it seems like they don’t want us to know. However, I wonder what the Feds are after on social networks? Technically, Homeland Security knows a great deal about me through my trips to the States, my Green Card, my credit cards, city agencies, school data, yearly tax reports… What is written on Twitter or Facebook that is so unique?
My guess would be that social networks help the Feds understand people’s social graphs. Facebook is a social graph goldmine (Facebook kinda made ‘social graph‘ the 2008 buzz word). In this Web era, Feds are not limited anymore to intercept pirated radio waves through the air, or randomly tap phone calls: Now they can elaborate on who is connected to who, who influences who, and how dissident opinions emerge from small groups.
If Facebook is not obliged by the law to share its data center with the government, it could advise, off-record, on how to tweak the system (like fake friend requests or data-sharing through third party apps).
Back in March (2009), several founders of tech startups met at the White House to suggest novel ideas to save the American economy. Once you shook a few hands to a few bandits from the White House, you can’t go back.
My point is that federal agencies are probably very-well informed by insiders on how to hack their way through people’s lives. For example, this story might have been made up, but it reveals an underlying truth about the government and technology-builders. Once again we owe it to the hippies from Berkeley for saving our butts and protecting our rights while we obliviously tweet about every little things that we do.