DHS used Facebook for investigations, group reveals

Department policy memos of 2008 show social media used for surveillance

Homeland Security Department authorities in May 2008 encouraged investigators to “friend” and "follow" applicants for citizenship on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and to use the personal information obtained as part of their eligibility investigations, an independent group has revealed.

DHS officials also established a Social Networking Monitoring Center in the months leading up to President Barack Obama’s January 2009 inauguration to keep tabs on “items of interest” on the social media sites, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF published both official policy memos on its website Oct. 12 and 13. The documents were obtained in connection with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

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Both policies were issued during the administration of President George W. Bush, and it was not immediately clear whether the social media monitoring was continued once Bush's term ended. DHS officials were not immediately available today to comment on the report.

EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch criticized both policies as too broad, infringing upon sensitive personal information and potentially deceptive and unethical.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of DHS, started the “friending” policy to investigate whether subjects’ marriages are authentic and whether they passed other citizenship tests, Lynch said.

However, the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent is required to find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target, she said. Nor does the memo make clear that the DHS agents must reveal their affiliation or purpose.

This creates a possibility “that agents could actively deceive online users to infiltrate their social networks and monitor the activities of not only that user, but also the user’s friends, family, and other associates,” Lynch wrote.

In addition, the memo may skew investigations by taking certain joking or light-hearted information on a social site and blowing it out of proportion, she said.

“This memo suggests there’s nothing to prevent an exaggerated, harmless or even out-of-date offhand comment in a status update from quickly becoming the subject of a full citizenship investigation,” Lynch wrote.

As for the “items of interest” collected for the social networking monitoring center, Lynch said the effort appeared to be massive in its scope, targeting numerous sites and large amounts of information. Targeted sites included Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Migente and BlackPlanet as well as news sites NPR and DailyKos.

“The breadth of sites targeted is concerning,” Lynch wrote. “DHS collected a massive amount of data on individuals and organizations explicitly tied to a political event.”

She also expressed concerned about protection of the personally identifiable information, which, under DHS policies, was scrubbed from the public data. But questions remain whether it was deleted permanently or has the potential of being reidentified, Lynch said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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