The Real Privacy Scandal On Social Networks: The Feds Are Spying On Their "Friends"

All the hoopla over the Wall Street Journal’s so-called Facebook “privacy breach” article, it’s subsequent and curiously-timed MySpace followup, and also the New York Times’ take on the ability of Facebook advertisers to target ads for nursing schools to gay men is unwittingly creating cover for a social networking privacy issue that’s much bigger.  It might be surprising to some, but it turns out that U.S. federal agents have been urged to “friend” people in order to spy on them.

The feds operate such social sting operations aided by the fact that there are very few individuals that actually know every single person in their “friend” list on Facebook.  For instance, it is typical to connect to someone because one thinks they might have met them.  Or, a connection might take place because two people share common interests and want to view each other’s news posts going forward.  But that’s not how the government sees it.

In a memo obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) discovered that the Feds see Facebook as a psychological crutch for the needy.  Here’s a direct quote from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) memo: “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.”  And it gets worse.

The memo explains that these “tendencies” provide “an excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.”  Translation: spy on unsuspecting people on Facebook and MySpace in order to catch the bad guys.

Such tactics are decidedly creepy (how many completely innocent people are they spying on), but the argument could be made that if you have nothing to hide, then why worry?  Here’s why: many people post items to their profiles that they forget to update or that are not necessarily true, and which they certainly wouldn’t be saying if they knew they were under investigation.  Indeed, a recent study initiated by UK insurance company Direct Line concluded that “people are more likely to be dishonest when chatting using technology, such as Twitter, than they would be face to face.”

Why is it that people might lie more on social media than in person?  According to Psychologist Glenn Wilson, “we sometimes use these means of communication rather than a face-to-face encounter or a full conversation when we want to be untruthful, as it is easier to fib to someone when we don’t have to deal with their reactions or control our own body language.”  This leads to a few common sense conclusions.

First, government officials need to take note that one should not believe everything one reads on the Internet—even if it is generated by a “person of interest.”  Second, as the EFF’s Jennifer Lynch pointed out, “the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target.”  In a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, government should not be in the business of creating an atmosphere that could chill expression.

On October 18th, Congressmen Edward Markey (D., Mass.) and Joe Barton (R., Texas) sent Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg a letter in which they expressed their concern about marketing companies that “gathered and transmitted personally identifiable information about Facebook users and those users’ friends.”

To many tech folks, it seems more than a bit hypocritical for government representatives to be going after Silicon Valley companies for using social networking data when the government is doing exactly the same thing itself (and more).  In addition to bureaucrats urging agents to befriend targets, the EFF also discovered that the Department of Homeland Security used “a ‘Social Networking Monitoring Center’ to collect and analyze online public communication during President Obama’s inauguration.”  And, recall how Google Maps has been used to track down hoes with “unpermitted” pools in Long Island, NY.  Those Big Brother moves are much more disconcerting than Facebook applications using referrer URLs to better target ads.

Editor’s note: Guest author Sonia Arrison is a senior fellow in technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute and has been writing about privacy issues for over a decade. Follow her on Twitter @soniaarrison.

Photo credit: Flickr/nolifebeforecoffee.