FBI’s Social Media Monitoring Plan Must Balance Privacy, Security

A few weeks ago this blog pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security’s command center regularly monitors social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, popular sites like Hulu, controversial sites including WikiLeaks, and news and commentary sites like The Huffington Post and Drudge Report, according to a government document.

Now, there is an indication that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is developing a web application that will have the ability to monitor social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Such an application supposedly will give the FBI intelligence about potential security threats.

The FBI’s apparent social media monitoring plan has been reported on by Christina Warren at Mashable.com. She explains that the FBI’s plan was inadvertently revealed by its Strategic Information and Operations Center within a social media application market research request. This revelation was uncovered by New Scientist magazine.

Privacy advocates generally are against government monitoring of social media sites.

However, it appears that the FBI’s social media monitoring plan in this context is to only gain access to publicly available information.

Accordingly, the government view likely is that any information posted online for public viewing is legitimate information for it to search. Any privacy interests would be de minimis, while the policy in favor of preventing security threats and crises is strong.

The response from privacy advocates very well might be that while people may provide information on social media sites in a public fashion, they do not do so thinking that what they say and post might be monitored by the government. With such government monitoring, there could be a chilling effect on Internet speech and conduct.

Of course, the government might respond to this argument by asserting that if you are not doing anything wrong, and if you are not contributing to a security threat, you have nothing to worry about in terms of what you post on social media sites.

But privacy advocates could reply to this by arguing that even if someone is innocent of wrongdoing, his or her social media posts could potentially be misconstrued, causing that person to incorrectly fall under the government’s suspicion.

This debate is coming, if it is not here already. Stay tuned to see how it evolves. Balancing on the privacy/security threat tightrope is not a simple endeavor.

Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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