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FBI Soliciting Data Miners to Track Social Media Threats

SubverseAug 9, 2019, 10:05:52 PM
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By: Tarik Johnson

The FBI has put out a solicitation for a “firm fixed-price contract for the purpose of acquiring subscriptions services to a social media early alerting tool in order to mitigate multifaceted threats, while ensuring all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the solicitation is in direct conflict with Facebook privacy policy and may obstruct its ability to pay the five billion dollar settlement with the US government last month. The request was posted last month, weeks before a series of mass murders shook the country and led President Trump to call for social-media platforms to do more to detect potential shooters before they act. The deadline for bids is August 27.

The FBI's attempt to gain far-reaching visibility into the social media activities of both Americans and foreigners risks clashing with other parts of the federal government that are trying to clamp down on Silicon Valley for data breaches, privacy violations, and other cases in which user information was shared without consent. The solicitation calls for companies or individuals that can give law enforcement agents advanced warning of violent incidents as well as the ability to summon a given social media user's ID numbers, IP addresses, and telephone numbers if necessary.

The FBI declined to comment about the potential program, as a matter of standard practice to not comment on pending procurements. It states in the solicitation, that it believes the data can be collected “while ensuring all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met.”

This is not the first time the FBI has sought access to a wide array of social media data. In 2016, the agency announced it had hired the social media analysis company Dataminr to allow law enforcement to "search the complete Twitter firehose, in near real-time, using customizable filters." Dataminr, which looks at open source information only, is also contracted by media outlets including CNN.

Civil liberties advocates warn that the contract could easily be abused. Matt Cagle, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told CNN, "This proposal invites dragnet surveillance that history shows will disproportionately harm immigrants, communities of color, and activists, and it invites profit-seeking firms to violate Facebook and Twitter rules designed to keep users safe. Treating social media users like suspects won't make us more safe, but it will make us less free."

Addressing the nation Monday on the tragedies in Texas and Ohio, President Donald Trump spoke about stopping mass shooting incidents, hate crimes and domestic terrorism before they happen, specifically by targeting "the dark recesses of the internet." Trump then announced that the Justice Department would be working with social media companies and all levels of law enforcement to "develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike."

It is not clear what types of new tools the President has in mind. There is virtually no doubt that federal law enforcement already monitors social media with a variety of tools. Law enforcement and U.S. intelligence agencies have long been working with social media companies to stop online radicalization, disrupt propaganda, and address other threats. Law enforcement also actively disrupts illicit activity on the dark web.