Saturday, February 19, 2011

Government Uses Social Networking Sites for More than Investigations

EFF August 16th, 2010

In the midst of recent controversies over Facebook’s privacy settings, it’s easy to forget how much personal information is available from other sources on the Internet. But the government remembers. EFF recently received a number of documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) highlighting the government’s ability to scour not only social networks, but record each and every corner of the Internet. These documents were released in the second of a series of government disclosures resulting from EFF’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in which EFF, with the help of UC Berkeley’s Samuelson Clinic, sought information on the procedures and guidelines employed by government agencies when conducting social network monitoring or investigations.

As an example of the government’s substantial information collection capability, several documents [PDF] in the CIA’s disclosure discuss the CIA’s so-called Open Source Center, established in 2005, which has been collecting information from publicly accessible Internet sources such as blogs, chat rooms and social networking sites, in addition to monitoring radio and television programs. The Open Source Center’s website,, bills itself as the “US Government’s premier provider of foreign open source intelligence.” It is accessible to almost 15,000 local, state, and federal government employees and offers products ranging from reports and analysis on publicly available information dating back to the mid-90s, video reports and internet clips, translations, and media mapping and hot spot analysis.

In the other document [PDF] included in this release, FBI emails reveal the FBI’s interest in the University of Arizona’s Dark Web Project, an attempt by computer scientists to “systematically collect and analyze all terrorist-generated content on the Web.” Information in the document describes the Dark Web Project as especially effective in employing spiders to search Internet forums and find hidden web sites in the “corners of the Internet.” In addition to being able to search the Internet for content, the Dark Web Project is developing a tool called Writeprint that claims to help identify the creators of anonymous online content. The FBI emails reveal an interest in applying the Dark Web Project’s tools to the FBI’s own “operational analysis and exploitation of data, including web forums.”

As EFF and the Samuelson Clinic continue to seek information about law enforcement investigation techniques used on the Internet, we hope to learn more about how the government uses this information and especially how long it plans to keep it. In the meantime, however, it is clear that government investigators are collecting a wealth of information though the Internet in general and outside of the law enforcement context. It is also a good reminder that while social networks and other websites have privacy settings, the Internet does not. Stay tuned here for the next release.


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