Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

The American GeniusThe American Genius

Housing News

Department of Justice Sued For Social Network Surveillance

Law enforcement is watching you

government surveillance social networkingIn the same week that Facebook sets up a Safety Advisory Board and streamlines privacy settings, privacy watchdogs, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Treasury and Office of the Director of National Intelligence for cloaking their use of social networking sites, notably Twitter and Facebook for investigating citizens for civil and criminal matters. After more than a dozen requests by EFF under the Freedom of Information Act (asking the agencies what methods they were using and what data they were accessing and collecting on people) were ignored, they finally filed suit.

The EFF wants to know the protocol for surveillance, especially legal rules for creating false identities to trick social network users into friending them to give them access to their private profile information (such as happened to UW students when cops set up a profile as a hot chick, friended students then when they found pictures of underage drinking, gave students citations).

My personal belief (and you may differ) is that in the Administration (that is in place in part because of their promise to be “transparent”) should disclose as closely as telephone monitoring the methods used to comb social networks should be . Despite the good that comes out of sleuthing (learning about gang activities, following breadcrumbs of fraud at a large company or even reading a murder suspect’s private messages on Twitter), the methodology should be no secret.

Here are some examples of what the government has been up to:

Here is the good and bad based on EFF’s research…

  • Law enforcement requested GPS location information from Sprint Nextel over 8 million times from 09/2008 to 10/2009.
  • The FBI researched Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and activist’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles (via Wired Magazine, October 5th).
  • The FBI searched the Elliot Madison’s house because of Twitter messages he sent during the G-20 summit notifying protesters of poliec movements (via New York Times, October 5th).
  • New York City law enforcement uses Twitter to monitor the city’s gang activity (via New York Daily News, November 29th).

We’re all users of social networks, so what’s the real issue here– that Big Brother is watching or that Big Brother is hiding that they’re watching? Is social networking the same as telephone communications and should it or should it not be protected the same way. With issues of privacy coming to a head, do we use social networking with the understanding that everything is public and is it the case that law enforcement should use it to protect us or is their secret surveillance over the line?

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Ian Greenleigh

    December 11, 2009 at 9:18 am

    I think Twitter is different from the rest. With Twitter, one knows that whatever one says can and will be publicly seen. If law enforcement goes an extra, deceptive step, then and only then do I see a problem. But one of the examples you cite, NYPD tracking gang movement, seems completely logical and even above board. In fact, I would be concerned if modern police forces WEREN’T at least exploring the use of new media monitoring, although how they go about doing this is of primary concern to me.

  2. BawldGuy

    December 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Public records is IMHO, the analogy here. Gonna rob a bank? Don’t put it on social media, moron. This is both a political and a constitutional topic.

    President Transparency tacitly approves of these tactics via his refusal to comment.

    Strictly speaking, I’m failing to see a constitutional violation here — at least so far. The world post 9/11 ain’t Kansas anymore. We either kill the bad guys, or they kill us.

  3. Benn Rosales

    December 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

    I have a feeling this may be the case that makes it to the supreme court where it comes to addressing what new media spaces are in the eyes of the law. Private space and absolute rights to privacy versus public square and probable cause. No one can make a case against use by law enforcement, but just like anything else, there are rights(?), but in sm, I don’t know that those rights are spelled out. Is the internet the wild west? I don’t think it’s going to remain so for long. I was taken back at first when I read the suit was filed because there was no response from law enforcement, but then I realized that if there are no rights in play, why should they, there is no question for them to answer.

  4. BawldGuy

    December 11, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Thinkin’ you hit the nail on the head, Benn.

  5. Bob

    December 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Why should they have to disclose? There is no expectation of privacy.

    • Benn Rosales

      December 11, 2009 at 11:11 am

      Not really true, when I signed up for facebook your school was the network and you could absolutely be private (still can), and twitter was ‘tell your “friends” what you’re doing, Described by twitter founders as an away message for your friends- not the world. Both provide privacy options, as does linkedIn and myspace. Just because I have a telephone doesn’t really mean anyone can call me and that I want to talk to everyone, and either way, if you’re going to tap it, you’d better have a warrant and probable cause- the same will or will not apply to new media data, which is the point.

      • Bob Wilson

        December 11, 2009 at 11:25 am

        If you friend or follow someone, there is no expectation of privacy with regard to any conversation you have allowed that person to be part of online.

        If yoo have a secret and want to keep it that way, dont put it online.

        I noticed no mention of Google. Google keeps everything. With gmail, wave, etc, privacy is a myth.

        • Benn Rosales

          December 11, 2009 at 11:37 am

          On that point, I’m pickin up what you’re throwin down! What I’m talking about is bypassing the need for a warrant for your gps location and getting it from a twitter api instead. 🙂 Or tapping your direct messages.

          • Bob Wilson

            December 11, 2009 at 1:21 pm

            If they created their own app and distributed it under a shell company, would they still need a warrant?

  6. Sonny Gill

    December 11, 2009 at 11:30 am

    What an interesting issue and one that will probably have a good amount of people on both sides. Without really picking sides on the issue itself, I think Benn is spot on that we don’t have strict guidelines within the social space. Sure, there are rules (some are unwritten) in how we act on these platforms, our blogging, sponsored tweet/posts/etc., but we’re talking about something deeper than that – the rights of each one of us and how they are protected by the law. It is a wild west out here sometimes, heck even companies are going in blindly without covering themselves legally. To that, there needs to be specifics and I think they’ll come – in time. As the FTC has slowly launched/tweaked their blogging guidelines, these new sets of ‘laws’ will come soon as well.

    To BawldGuy’s point, I do agree – in the end, don’t put up incriminating or harmful pieces of information or media that could get back to you by the law – and even personal information that you may think is cool at the time but would be appalled if someone you didn’t want seeing it, utilized it.

    • Benn Rosales

      December 11, 2009 at 11:38 am

      “but we’re talking about something deeper than that – the rights of each one of us and how they are protected by the law”


    • Jason Keath

      December 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm

      I think Sonny is right. The FTC will catch up. The government and law enforcement is most likely over reaching. The EFF is serving as their check. The issue will fall to congress and the administration to direct solutions in a more timely manner (let’s hope).

      In the mean time, with the technology soaked world that we live in, everyone should realize that the everything is becoming more transparent. If you are trying to cut corners, get away with something, whether it is a watchdog group, the FBI, or a hacker across the street, it is easier than ever to dig up dirty little secrets.

      I am all for protecting freedoms, but it starts with the individual. I know what I put out there. And I am comfortable with it. I am even more comfortable with the fact that less scrupulous individuals and companies will be beholden to a new more transparent status quo.

      • Lani Rosales

        December 13, 2009 at 2:57 pm

        First, let me say that I don’t really care if the gov uses surveillance just that they’re open about how they do it. Operating a pedo sting in chat rooms using a false identity is far different than using a false identity to get friended into my Facebook inner circle of trust, ESPECIALLY without cause. Wire tapping is regulated, social networking is just another “wire” if you will.

        Jason, you say “it starts with the individual” and that’s true, but what happens when (assuming you’re self employed) go to Dallas on Tuesday and the whole time tweet about fun stuff you’re doing, throw your receipts in your suitcase and fly home on Thursday. But by the time you do your bookkeeping, you can’t read the date anymore on that expensive dinner and instead of going back and digging for the date, you just guesstimate and say it was Monday. Problem is that your tweets say you were there Tuesday and Wednesday and the IRS has done a spot check to compare your tweets with your tax return and find inconsistencies and decide a full audit is necessary and they plan on using your social networking profiles to verify where you were and when.

        I see that as a strong possibility, but don’t you think it’s fair that you at least know that going in instead of getting that “we can’t tell you how we know, but we are aware of certain things” letter from a governmental agency? Or getting the call that the hot chick that’s been talking to you on Facebook is really a detective who decided that your avatar looked like a candidate for credit card fraud and is now calling you in for a picture of you taken with a wax sculpture of Bernie Madoff that Mr. Detective thinks is real?

        Seriously, track known gangsters, terrorists, etc, that have shown cause for suspicion but citizens should know what the government is or is not doing to protect or condemn them.

        • Jason Keath

          December 13, 2009 at 3:02 pm

          You are describing a choice to put your personal information out there to the world, or in the Facebook example, a stranger. I would say both of your examples start with the individual making smart decisions.

          • Lani Rosales

            December 13, 2009 at 4:31 pm

            No argument there- regulation or no regulation on their surveillance won’t make an idiot smart, but I’d like to know at least what protocol is, not just because all of my social networks are private and I do *not* choose to put it in the public, but because we write here and other places about social networking and government interaction is increasingly a part of that.

            Thanks for stopping by, Jason, it’s always great to banter with ya! 🙂

        • Jason Keath

          December 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm

          For the record I agree with you that we social and internet monitoring should be held to the same rules as wire tapping. Open information on social networks does not apply though because it is open and readily accessible. There is no assumption of privacy. Email however, or location, or private messages of any kind should apply.

          I think ultimately everything will be cleaned up, but nothing keeps up with the speed of the internet, especially laws and government. I am glad that organizations like EFF are working to make the government catch up quicker than they would on their own.

  7. Ian Greenleigh

    December 11, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I’ll be the guy that points out the fact that there is no EXPLICIT right to privacy outlined in the constitution. It has been understood to be implied, and has been established by precedent upon perceived, but I always feel like these discussions should at least get this clear before they can really be productive. Not knocking SCOTUS, just observing that this is the case.

  8. Ian Greenleigh

    December 11, 2009 at 11:53 am

    * perceived intent- sorry

    • Benn Rosales

      December 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm

      However, the moment you as a business offer an option of privacy, one could argue that reasonable privacy was implied and one could argue what reasonable is/was. Hairy hairy ordeal if not outlined?

  9. BawldGuy

    December 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

    True, Ian. Which is why Borked is now part of our culture’s vocabulary. He was the first in our time to say it out loud on a hugely public stage.

  10. Melanie Wyne

    December 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    All great points. It is always the case that law and policy lag far behind technology and that gap is only getting wider. We are experiencing a huge transitional shift in communications technology and society is reacting to that shift–even if its clumsy. Law and policy will be bringing up the rear. So, we can expect more and more of these types suits to help begin to sort it all out. I’ll be watching with interest.

  11. Benn Rosales

    December 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    btw we’ve been down this road before (sort of) where the Bush administration/DOJ wanting to study how much X rated material appeared in children searches, Google refused, other engines did not. I would say privacy has more than been implied, even where Google is concerned.

  12. BawldGuy

    December 11, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    The 900 pound gorilla in the room is the same one who’s been there since forever.

    Do the American people want a well defined right to privacy written into the constitution?

    Beware what you wish for.

  13. Ian Greenleigh

    December 11, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    OK, speaking of G__gle, that choice was obviously not altruistic or one of pure principle, but bottom line. Evidence: Their “attempt to comply” with China’s censorship laws.

    • Benn Rosales

      December 11, 2009 at 12:34 pm

      But it is one of the first times big govs been outted for attempting to drink from the online data fountain w/o oversight and brings to bear the gravity of personal human exposure using online technology.

      • Ian Greenleigh

        December 11, 2009 at 12:40 pm

        Is it cynical or not-idealistic-enough to just ASSUME that this is already happening? I mean, I don’t necessarily WANT it to happen, but, well, there’s the NSA–an agency which wasn’t even publicly acknowledged by the Gov until a few years ago.

  14. Paul

    December 11, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Oh Big Brother! Didn’t Google and another company supply the government with search information after being subpoenaed.

  15. Melanie Wyne

    December 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Here’s an example of how it works both ways. Lawmakers Want to Bar Sites From Posting Sensitive Government Documents.


    • Bob Wilson

      December 11, 2009 at 1:15 pm

      I clicked on that link and 5 minutes later two black helos flew over.

      • Benn Rosales

        December 11, 2009 at 1:37 pm

        haha I said when this was published this had a sort of nwo ring to it, the editor opted not to go with black helicopters as an image heh

  16. Stefano

    December 11, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    RT @LaniAR: the Department of Justice is being sued for social media surveillance practices: /via @be3d

  17. Portland Condo Auctions

    December 11, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    There needs to be complete transparency. I dont like the idea that law abiding citizens are being watched just as often as suspects of crimes.


  18. Ian Greenleigh

    December 11, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Great new media + privacy debate going on up in here:

  19. Dan

    December 11, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Department of Justice Sued For Social Network Surveillance

  20. Joe Loomer

    December 12, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Is it just me or has Lani been on steroids and extra coffee the last couple of weeks? Awesome posts, multiple times a day. I can’t keep up !

    Came on here to agree with Bawld Guy and his “post 9/11” comment – then realized no one would remember back that far…..

    There’s two sides to this – citizenship and purpose of the “eavesdropping”:

    1. US citizens, and non-US citizens. Citizens have rights to privacy in WHATEVER method they chose to communicate – provided the message medium has some expectation of privacy (email, phone calls, one-to-one texts, instant messaging). Otherwise, get a warrant. If you post something in a public forum, there’s no expectation of privacy.

    2. Crimes vs. Intelligence gathering. If you’re attempting to aprehend a criminal (regardless of citizenship), you should be required to get a warrant to wiretap, etc… If you’re collecting intelligence as part of the greater warfighting effort – then you’re not a cop anyway – you’re working for someone in Langley or Fort Meade, and this is where the citizenship laws in the intelligence community pop up. The laws and directives (that are themselves classified) – are extremely tough on collecting intelligence on U.S Citzens – within US borders and abroad. There is no shadow intelligence agency (other than the FBI) monitoriing random Americans on a daily basis ala Eagle Eye or other conspiracy films (what was the one with John Voight and Gene Hackman?).

    Intelligence gathering against ctizens typically requires the approval of a Federal judge if not accidental (in the accidental case it must be destroyed within 24 hours of recognition). In the event a crime is revealed during the course of said collection, the appropriate agency is notified to deal with it in accordance with law enforcement guidlines and policies. In the event tactical intelligence is gleaned, a bad guy or two usually gets a visit from Mr. Hellfire Missile. If the info’s strategic, we continue to listen/monitor.

    Truth be told, if you knew how carefully US intelligence AVOIDS AT ALL COST collecting against US Citizens, you’d probably be quite dissapointed and understand more why 9/11 happened in the first place.

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  21. Kathleen A. Scanlon

    December 12, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    DOJ Sued For Social Network Surveillance Big Brother is Friending You With Fake Profiles #legal #fb #in

  22. Carlos Abler

    December 13, 2009 at 2:43 am

    Department of Justice Sued For Social Network Surveillance

  23. Patti Breckenridge

    December 13, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Numerous Federal Agencies Sued For Social Network #Surveillance – – RT @web_socialmedia #socialmedia #cia #DOJ #DOD #fb

  24. ed farrell

    December 13, 2009 at 3:43 am

    Why would anyone think that postings on social network sites would not be monitored by gov. agencies

  25. Bill

    December 13, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Federal Agencies Sued For Social Network #Surveillance – – RT @web_socialmedia @PattiBreckenrdg #patriotact

  26. Missy Caulk

    December 13, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Just disclose and then we as individuals will have the option to either be there or not participate. Lani, you know the whole campaign promise about transparency was a lie, it had not been adhered to from the get go.

  27. Kathy Swanson

    December 14, 2009 at 3:31 am

    RT @Carlos_Abler: Department of Justice Sued For Social Network Surveillance

  28. Larry Brewer

    December 14, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I personally expect everything I write to be seen by strangers. Some of them may be part of a government agency that is always looking for a reason to fine someone. I think some government agencies are more concerned about generating revenue, than protecting the country, and it’s citizens (that would be us).

  29. polymath22

    December 19, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    RT @Oculuris: Federal Agencies Sued For Social Network #Surveillance – – RT @web_socialmedia @PattiBreckenrdg #pat …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


American Genius
news neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list for news sent straight to your email inbox.



Opinion Editorials

It has become a running joke that AI can't create hands or feet, instead creating nightmare fuel. What's the real reason for this?

Tech News

(TECHNOLOGY) The digital revolution of the past few decades has brought us many life-altering, innovative technologies, but these 7 take the cake.

Opinion Editorials

(HOW TO) In small business, the concept of utilizing cutting-edge technology feels like a pipe dream. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Tech News

(TECH NEWS) Another instance of "technology is amazing:" this minimally invasive eye implant has opened new doors for sight restoration surgeries for the legally...

The American Genius is a strong news voice in the entrepreneur and tech world, offering meaningful, concise insight into emerging technologies, the digital economy, best practices, and a shifting business culture. We refuse to publish fluff, and our readers rely on us for inspiring action. Copyright © 2005-2022, The American Genius, LLC.