March 16, 2010, 5:26 PM — You say you've just gotten a friend request from someone with a square jaw, a buzz cut, and a flag pin on his lapel? Congratulations; the FBI is now your FBBFF.
(That's Facebook Best Friend Forever, for the acronymically challenged.)
The Federales have been quietly infiltrating social networks for years, but most people just haven't realized it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation made that news a little more public today by publishing documents it received via a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the Department of Justice.
The docs are primarily an IRS training course outline [PDF] and a presentation by Department of Justice officials [PDF] about the legality/usefulness of mining social networks for information.
Per the Associated Press:
"Among other purposes: Investigators can check suspects' alibis by comparing stories told to police with tweets sent at the same time about their whereabouts. Online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to robberies or burglaries."
(Among the examples used by the DOJ: Demi Moore's Facebook, screenwriter Diablo Cody's Twitter account, the MySpace home of "Top Model Michelle," and Barack Obama's LinkedIn page.)
The DOJ docs describe Facebook as "often cooperative with emergency requests." Twitter, however, "will not preserve data without legal process."
Remember, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and all the rest are public networks. Whatever information you've made available to everyone is also available to the cops. The Feds don't need demonstrate probable cause to a judge (or even whip up a National Security Letter) to check up on you; all they need is an excuse.
The DOJ docs also discuss using information found on social networks to discredit defense witnesses, and address going undercover on social networks to gather intelligence. I assume that means creating fake online profiles and befriending 'persons of interest':
"Why Go Undercover on Facebook, MySpace, etc?
- Communicate with suspects/targets
- Gain Access to Nonpublic info
- Map social relationships/networks"
That last bullet point is key. In other words, if the Feds are investigating one of your 2,347 close personal friends on Facebook, they may also be investigating you.
However, not all Federal agencies are playing the Facebook game, as the EFF notes:
"The IRS should be commended for its detailed training that clearly prohibits employees from using deception or fake social networking accounts to obtain information. Its policies generally limit employees to using publicly available information. The good example set by the IRS is in stark contrast to the U.S. Marshalls and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Neither organization found any documents on social networking sites in response to EFF's request suggesting they do not have any written policies or restrictions upon the use of these websites."
Remember: That stripper who just friended you on MySpace might be an undercover vice squad agent. So be sure to keep your nose (and everything else) clean.
Author Dan Tynan is not now, nor has he ever been, involved in activities of a suspicious nature. So lay off him, coppers. The rest of you can follow him on Twitter (@tynan_on_tech) or prepare to be
appalled amused by his geek humor site, eSarcasm.