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FBI Follows Suspects Onto Social Networks

March 18, 2010 05:00 PM
by James Sullivan
Federal agents are logging on to popular social networks to gather information about suspects, while recent months have seen significant lapses in online privacy protection.

FBI Infiltration and the Erosion of Online Privacy

Through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained a 33-page document indicating that FBI agents have been trained to use social networking sites to gather evidence—specifically sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace. By creating fake profiles and sending “friend requests,” or by simply viewing a suspect’s public information, agents believe their undercover activities can, among other things, “[e]stablish motives and personal relationships,” “[p]rovide location information” and “[p]rove and disprove alibis,” Sarah Jacobsson writes for PCWorld.

Richard Lardner for The Associated Press explores some of the ethical issues surrounding the practice among federal agents of breaking terms of service rules by creating false profiles. “A former U.S. cybersecurity prosecutor, Marc Zwillinger, said investigators should be able to go undercover in the online world the same way they do in the real world, even if such conduct is barred by a company's rules. But there have to be limits, he said.”

The world of social networking has seen a handful of breaches in privacy recently. Last year Facebook changed default user privacy settings to make profiles accessible by the public through Google, requiring users to manually change them back. In February 2009, Google launched its Buzz service, which accidentally made Gmail users’ contacts publicly viewable. And just last week, Netflix distributed supposedly “anonymous” user information to developers working on the service’s recommendations engine, only to learn that the information could be used in conjunction with other publicly available information to identify those users.

The FBI is not the only intelligence service actively exploring the possibilties of social media.

CIA Seeks Advanced Monitoring of Social Media Sphere

In October 2009, Visible Technologies, a self-described “leading provider of social media analysis and engagement solutions,” announced its partnership with In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit venture capital firm based in Arlington, Va., that works to keep the CIA and U.S. Intelligence Community equipped with the latest technology. 

The investment in Visible is part of the CIA’s effort to better harness “open source intelligence”—intelligence that’s publicly available through television or the Web, but that is easily buried by each day’s deluge of information.

In early 2008, Doug Naquin, director of the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center, admitted that U.S. spies were using social media outlets like YouTube to stay current. “We’re looking at chat rooms and things that didn't exist five years ago, and trying to stay ahead.” In this context, one can see the recent move toward a service like that provided by Visible, which simplifies the process of monitoring the Web’s disparate and ever-changing social media sites, as a more concerted effort to stay ahead of the curve (or at least to stay on its heels).

The CIA recognized the potential value of social networking sites in 2006 when it began recruiting candidates for the agency on Facebook. According to a Wired magazine report, “The CIA’s Facebook page (login required) provides an overview of what the NCS [National Clandestine Service] is looking for in a recruit, along with a 30-second promotional YouTube video aimed at potential college-aged applicants. U.S. citizens with a GPA above 3.0 can apply.”

Social Media Platforms Adapted for Use by the Intelligence Community

Trying to capitalize on the collaborative benefits Web 2.0 services afford their users, the intelligence community has attempted to customize some of the Web’s better-known tools to aid its members in intelligence gathering and information sharing.

In April 2009, Time magazine reported on a Web-based intelligence-sharing resource called “Intellipedia,” being used by the CIA and its related agencies. The service, which is essentially a classified version of Wikipedia, “has grown to a 900,000-page magnum opus of espionage, handling some 100,000 user accounts and 5,000 page edits a day, according to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”

A similar service also in use by the CIA called A-Space, or Analytic Space, is somewhat more akin to MySpace. A-Space was designed to encourage interaction between agents and facilitate the sharing of data in a secure environment. Despite growing pains reported by Time magazine in April 2009, in August, Virginia Business reported that ManTech International Corp., the group that developed A-Space, received an $11 million contract to continue A-Space for the next three years.

In April 2007, Dr. D. Calvin Andrus, the CIA’s Directorate of Support, published an article examining the need for fast information sharing and networking in modern intelligence. He called for the implementation of an online information sharing system called SIPRNet—a platform similar to A-Space. According to Andrus, “Our national security is best protected when we operate more quickly than those who would do harm to our people and our freedom. This compressed response time allows us to disrupt, interdict, preempt, and respond to injurious efforts before our adversaries can achieve their goals against us.” To facilitate such rapid responses, Andrus addresses the sharing function of wikis and blogs.

Background: CIA and FBI’s Wikipedia controversy

Back in 2007, the FBI and CIA took flack when it was discovered that their computers were used to edit sensitive articles on Wikipedia, violating the site’s conflict-of-interest policy. Among the articles edited were those on the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the former CIA chief William Colby. A program called WikiScanner developed by Virgil Griffith led to the revelation.

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