Can the government get a full picture of who you are by friending you on
Facebook and monitoring your friends and family? The Department of
Homeland Security thinks so, and is apparently willing to pose as that
hot girl next door in order to become your friend.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently got its hands on a DHS document titled “Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS”
(PDF) as part of its work on social network surveillance. The document
generally details how social networks function and provides a list of
popular sites that people around the world like to use, including
Facebook, Badoo, Imeem, MySpace, Windows Live Spaces, and others.
However, the document also highlights to agents the importance of
amassing a lengthy friend list to many social network users, and how
they can take advantage of it. “Narcissistic tendencies in many people
fuels a need to have a large group of ‘friends’ link to their pages and
many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know,”
reads the document. “This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS
to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are
suspected of fraudulent activities.”
Agents are encouraged to take the opportunity to reveal fraud by poking
around in people’s profiles to see whether they are in valid
relationships or are attempting some other kind of fraud to get into the
country. “Once a user posts online, they create a public record and
timeline of their activities. In essence, using MySpace and other like
sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber “site-visit” on a [sic]
petitioners and beneficiaries,” instructs the DHS.
As noted by the EFF,
the memo doesn’t require DHS agents to reveal their government
affiliation (or even their real names) before sending friend requests,
nor does it specify what level of suspicion agents must have before
trying to friend someone for surveillance.
On top of this, the DHS also monitored
a number of social networks for “items of interest” in the months
leading up to President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In addition to
the usual suspects (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Digg, Blogger,
Craigslist, Wikipedia, and Flickr), the DHS also monitored the sites for
certain demographic groups, such as MiGente and Black Planet, as well
as NPR and DailyKos.
Although the document emphasizes that personally identifiable
information shouldn’t be collected, it later says that anything publicly
divulged is open season for further analysis.
The EFF sharply criticizes the government for its data collection on
citizens and non-citizens alike, as well as its apparent opaqueness when
it comes to friending people online. The one major lesson for users,
however, is to always be skeptical of friend requests from people you
don’t know. Is your online privacy worth the tradeoff for one more mark
on the nightstand? As senior editor Nate Anderson pointed out while
discussing this piece, there are apparently benefits to being a Facebook
curmudgeon after all.