Lawsuit Seeks Information on How Government Uses Social-Networking Sites

By Matthew Harwood

A prominent hi-tech civil liberties organization filed suit in federal court yesterday to impel a half-dozen government agencies to disclose the policies and procedures that govern how they access, collect, and store information from social networking Web sites.

The 8-page lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) "seeks the release of records requested from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Treasury, Central Intelligence Agency, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerning the use of social-networking websites as investigative, surveillance, and data collection tools."

In early October, the EFF sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to each government agency to release all records "about federal guidelines on the use of social-networking websites (including but not limited to Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr and other online social media) for investigative ... or data gathering purposes created since January 2003."

The EFF's request was prompted by various media reports describing law enforcement using social networking Web sites to investigate crimes, surveil targets, and collect data. One article cited by the EFF describes the case of an anarchist social worker, Elliot Madison, who was arrested by the FBI for using Twitter to broadcast police movements to protesters during the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in September.

According to EFF's request, the organization filed these FOIA requests "to help inform Congress and the public about the effect of such uses and purposes on citizens' privacy rights and associated legal protections."

So far no government agency has processed the EFF's FOIA request within the applicable statutory deadline of 20 days.

"Internet users deserve to know what information is collected, under what circumstances, and who has access to it," said Shane Witnov, a law student also working on the case, in an EFF press release. "These agencies need to abide by the law and release their records on social networking surveillance."

♦ Photo by sitmonkeysupreme/Flickr


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