The FBI plans to mine social media postings for potential terrorist activity, raising privacy concerns as law enforcement seeks ways to combat security threats.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking contractors to create an early warning system for possible domestic and global threats based on intelligence gathered from social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, the photo sharing site Flickr, and YouTube.
The app will allow the law enforcement agency to search and scrape social networks for postings that signal potential local or national security threats. It will also superimpose the suspected activity on a map to plot global and domestic threats by geographic location as well as by priority level.
Federal agents plan to search for threatening social media postings using words such as “gangs,” “small pox,” “leak,” “recall,” and “2600,” a reference to a hacking-focused magazine, according to the BBC.
The FBI’s plan raises concerns over privacy and free speech rights. People post to social media sites under the expectation they can control who sees the information they share, and that they are safe to say whatever they choose without fear of legal repercussions.
Advocacy groups warn such freedoms could disappear if social media sites fall under law enforcement scrutiny.
Social media gives people “the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse,” says Jennifer Lynch from the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But these tools that mine open-source data and presumably store it for a very long time do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the U.S.”
The FBI’s social media crackdown could also impact the sharing sites themselves. Social networks such as Facebook and Google+ constantly refine and improve privacy policies in an effort to protect users personal information, appear trustworthy and safe, and appease federal regulators.
If the FBI decides to mine social networks for signs of terrorism, these sites may have no choice but to comply, which could change how users feel about posting and sharing information on them, no matter how airtight they make their privacy policies. If users grow too cautious about joining social media sites and sharing information on them, it will hamper the sites’ abilities to draw in new users, partner with other services, and attract advertisers.
Cyber attacks are serious threats, however, and law enforcement is scrambling for more effective ways to identify them early. At every level of government, officials seek ways to protect the country’s critical systems and infrastructure, and the rise in popularity of social media provides a welcome source of information.
The FBI says it will use the information it gains from social media sites to predict future actions of “bad actors,” people who deliberately mislead law enforcement officials, and to locate vulnerabilities in suspect groups.
Given the popularity of social media sites, the FBI could also be faced with a monstrous task as it ferrets out truly suspicious data from the flood of information people post every day, and critics fear harmless postings could be perceived as threats that warrant law enforcement attention.