FBI seeks to monitor Facebook, oversee mass social media data collection

Plans to track social media activity will potentially clash with existing privacy policies.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is planning to aggressively harvest information from Facebook and Twitter, a move which is likely to cause a clash between the agency and social media platforms. 

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the FBI has recently sought proposals from third-party vendors for technological solutions able to harvest publicly-available information in bulk from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.

The law enforcement agency says the data collected will be used "to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests."

The request was made several weeks before the most recent shootings in the US involving cities in Texas and Ohio. 

US President Trump blamed social media as the providers of areas for "disturbed minds" to become radicalized and called for the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to work with vendors "to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike."

Law enforcement has requested the means to "obtain the full social media profile of persons-of-interest and their affiliation to any organization or groups," to keep track of users based on their neighborhood, and keyword searches, among other tool functions. 

Vendors have until August 27 to submit their proposals.

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While the FBI believes that such tools can work in harmony with privacy safeguards and civil liberties, the mass collection of names, photos, and IDs -- when combined with information from other sources -- may do just the opposite. 

Back in July, for example, there was a public outcry after it was discovered that the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were plundering databases belonging to the DMV for surveillance and investigative purposes. 

The solicitation request is likely to raise the hackles of social media platforms. Facebook, in particular, has agreed to a $5 billion settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the past mishandling of user data and is currently working to comply with new privacy policies imposed by the agency including a "comprehensive data security program" and the prevention of the misuse of public data. 

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The FTC said that the nature of the settlement requires Facebook to prevent mass data gathering without consent -- whether or not the information is public or set to private. 

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Among Facebook and Instagram's policies is a ban imposed on developers for "[using] data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance." The changes, introduced in 2017, were made after an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigation found that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram data was being used in surveillance cases related to Black Lives Matter protests. 

Sources familiar with the matter told the WSJ that the solicitation would likely violate these rules. Facebook may find itself involved in a tug-of-war between the two arms of the US government; one that wishes to use the platform for spying, and another that wishes to better protect consumer privacy. 

Facebook, in the same way as other social media platforms, will need to tread lightly. The tech giant has become embroiled in scandal after scandal in recent years and has been thoroughly catechized for its past lax grip on how user data is secured and managed. 

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The last thing the company needs is a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica catastrophe, in which the data of up to 87 million users was harvested without consent for the purposes of voter profiling. 

The FBI declined to comment when approached by the WSJ. A Twitter spokesperson told the publication that prohibitions are in place to prevent any data use relating to surveillance or for any purpose which would clash with "users' reasonable expectations of privacy."

ZDNet has reached out to Facebook and will update if we hear back. 

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