2009 Archive

Samuelson Clinic Sues Agencies to Reveal Social Networking Policies

By Andrew Cohen

The Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic and Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued six federal agencies to force disclosure of their policies governing the use of social networking sites for criminal investigations and surveillance.

The complaint, available here, notes that Berkeley Law’s Samuelson Clinic made more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests asking agencies to reveal how they use sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. The suit was filed after the defendants—which include the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security—either did not respond to the requests or claimed to have no relevant documents about using social networks.

Recent news stories have raised awareness of this issue. Reportedly, the FBI researched the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of a computer programmer and activist, FBI agents searched the house of a social worker because of Twitter messages he sent during the G-20 summit notifying protestors of police movements, and New York City law enforcement officials tracked Twitter posts to monitor gang activity.

The Samuelson Clinic’s lawsuit demands immediate processing and release of all records concerning policies for the use of social networking sites in government investigations. In particular, it seeks to know what kind of information federal officials are accessing from users’ profiles, and what guidelines they follow for using fake identities to trick users into accepting online friend requests.

“This lawsuit is about government transparency and accountability,” says Shane Witnov ’10, one of the clinic students working on the case. “More and more, people are sharing private aspects of their lives via social networks. Yet we have almost no data about government access to this information and what limits, if any, are placed on their collection and use of it.”

While clinic staffers acknowledge that federal officials often use social networking sites to gather information for worthy reasons, the complaint asserts that the government “has not clarified the scope of its use of social networking websites or disclosed what restrictions and oversight is in place to prevent abuse.”

Congress is considering legislation that would increase online protections for consumers who use social networking sites, which Witnov endorses. “We think people should know the risks they are taking when they use these services,” he says. “We also hope to promote public discussion about appropriate online privacy protections by revealing what is currently taking place.”