FBI insists plan to monitor social media won’t violate civil liberties

The FBI today said that its proposed plans to monitor social media sites as part of a broader strategy to improve real-time situation awareness will be fully vetted by the agency’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Unit.

The unit will review the legal implications of the monitoringapplication and ensure that it meets all privacy and civil rightsobligations before it is implemented, the agency said in a statementemailed to Computerworld “Although the FBI has always adapted to meetchanges in technology, the rule of law, civil liberties, and civilrights, will remain our guiding principles,” the agency said.

The FBI was responding to questions about its plans to use technologyto quickly gather and analyze data posted on sites such as Facebook,Twitter and on blogs using simple keyword searches and phrases.

The FBI plans to scour socialmedia for phrases like ‘white powder’ and ‘suspicious package.’

In a Request For Information (RFI) last month, the FBI said that dataposted on such sites would let it more quickly detect specific andcredible threats, locate those organizing and taking part in dangerousgatherings and predict upcoming events.

It noted that social media networks have beentrumping police,firefighters and news media when it comes to communicating news ofdeveloping incidents and protests. “Social media is rivaling 911services in crisis response and reporting,” the RFI noted.

Similar monitoring by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hasalready stoked considerable privacy concerns. Groups such as theElectronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the ElectronicFrontier Foundation have called for more transparency and oversight ofsuch monitoring activities.

EPIC last month warnedthat some of DHS’ monitoring activities appeared to have little to dowith public safety; it has expressed similar concerns over the FBI’splans.

Monitoring key words, not people orgroups
Such concerns have prompted the House Committee on Homeland Security toschedulea hearing Thursday to examine the privacy implications ofDHS’ social media monitoring activities.

In its statement, the FBI said that information gathered from socialmedia networks will support the activities of its Strategic Informationand Operations Center (SIOC). “In accordance with its core mission,SIOC has a responsibility to enhance its techniques for collecting anddisseminating real-time publicly available open source information toimprove the FBI’s overall situational awareness and support of missionrequirements,” the FBI said.

Social media monitoring will help the agency stay on top of breakingevents, crisis activity or natural disasters that havealready occurredor are still in progress, the FBI said. The effort will not focus onspecific persons or protected groups, but on words that relate tospecific events, crisis scenarios and criminal or terrorist activities.

Examples of the words that the FBI will use in its social mediasearches will include ‘lockdown,’ ‘bomb,’ ‘suspicious package,”whitepowder,’ ‘active shoot’ and ‘school lock down.’

The federal government already uses publicly available open sourceinformation to identify immediate or emerging threats to nationalsecurity. “The type of social media application being researched by theFBI, to view publicly available information, is no different thanapplications used by other government agencies.”

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