EFF Sues Feds Over Social Network Surveillance

Has the federal government overreached in tapping social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to investigate possible criminal activity? The non-profit civil liberties’ group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) doesn’t know, but it’s filed suit to find out the scope of the government’s investigations.

The lawsuit, filed at the Northern District of California’s San Francisco division court, seeks information from a number of federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) who are listed as defendants in the case.

The EFF is asking for records from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, the CIA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerning their use of social networking Web sites as investigative, surveillance and data collection tools.

The EFF actually requested information from a number of federal agencies back in October, but didn’t hear back from most of them, leading to the court action. Some, like the Army, did respond to the EFF request noting they did not in fact have any programs in place that use social networks to investigate citizens.

“An agency normally has 20 working days, about a month, to respond to a request for documents but that rarely happens,” Marcia Hoffman, staff attorney for the EFF, told InternetNews.com. “Considering these agencies have violated the law by not responding by the deadline, we want to get the courts involved. Once we get the information we’ll make it available to the public on our Web site.”

Hoffman noted the EFF has not found any evidence the government did anything illegal in its reported use of social network sites. The complaint notes several examples, including an Associated Press article that reported police searching Facebook photos for evidence of underage drinking.

In another example, The Times of London reported on the Secret Service’s use of Facebook to find a suspect wanted in a fraud investigation.

“Although the Federal Government clearly uses social-networking Web sites to collect information, often for laudable reasons, it has not clarified the scope of its use of social-networking Web sites or disclosed what restrictions and oversight is in place to prevent abuse,” the EFF said in its complaint.

“This is about informing the public debate over the way the government uses this information,” said Hoffman. “We’re mostly interested in whether there are guidelines in place to protect public privacies.”

The news comes at a time of booming growth of social network sites (Facebook recently passed the 350 million registered user mark worldwide) along with privacy concerns. Facebook revamped some of its privacy policies earlier this week, in a move it said gives users more control and understanding of how their information is shared.

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