By Jeff Horwitz and Dustin Volz
An effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to more
aggressively monitor social media for possible threats could clash
with Facebook Inc.'s privacy policies and possibly its attempts to
comply with a record $5 billion settlement with the U.S. government
reached just last month.
The FBI is soliciting proposals from outside vendors for a
contract to pull vast quantities of data from Facebook, Twitter
Inc. and other social media "to proactively identify and reactively
monitor threats to the United States and its interests." 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 Aug. 27.
As described in the solicitation, it appears that the service
would violate Facebook's ban against the use of its data for
surveillance purposes, according to the company's user agreements
and people familiar with how it seeks to enforce them.
The FBI declined to comment about the potential program, citing
standard practice to not comment on pending procurements. It states
in its contracting request, which is posted on the agency's
website, that it believes the data can be collected "while ensuring
all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on the proposal,
including whether the company has contacted the FBI to discuss the
A Twitter spokeswoman cited the company's policy prohibiting the
use of its data "by any entity for surveillance purposes, or in any
other way that would be inconsistent with our users' reasonable
expectations of privacy. Period."
The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are under increasing
pressure to confront the challenges of mass violence and domestic
terrorism. Many of the recent attacks were perpetrated by men who
discussed their hateful ideologies on message boards and social
media, and in some cases displayed warning signs ahead of time.
Meanwhile, Facebook, in particular, is being pushed to better
safeguard user data after a series of privacy-related missteps over
the past few years, and now potentially finds itself caught between
competing imperatives from different arms of the government.
Facebook routinely cooperates with warrants, subpoenas and
emergency requests from law-enforcement agencies for information
about user accounts, and it reports child abuse, suicide attempts
and other major public-safety threats to the police when its staff
or users flag them.
The company draws a line at the collection of large amounts of
user data by law enforcement that can be analyzed without
permission from the company or its users.
The potential for unauthorized surveillance on Facebook's
platforms is an especially sensitive matter for the company because
of its recent privacy settlement with the Federal Trade Commission,
which resolved an investigation into a series of privacy violations
and breaches involving the company. The deal requires the company
to adhere to a "comprehensive data security program." That includes
preventing the misuse of even publicly viewable data such as
people's names, user IDs and photos -- all of which is explicitly
identified as information the FBI wants to capture from Facebook,
Instagram and Twitter.
An FTC spokesman said that Facebook's consent decree requires it
to prevent that type of data from being gathered without its users'
authorization and that the agreement isn't limited to information
"that is subject to a privacy setting or that is set to be
The FBI proposal ratchets up a long-running feud between law
enforcement and civil-liberties advocates over how social media
should be used to detect and investigative potential criminal
In late 2016, following an investigation by the American Civil
Liberties Union into social-media monitoring done by outside
developers on behalf of law enforcement, Facebook and Twitter
cracked down on those services and explicitly banned the use of
their data for surveillance purposes, according to a recent
research paper by Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center for
Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.
Facebook's ban allowed law-enforcement agencies to look at
public profiles manually but not use software designed for
large-scale collection and analysis of user data. Many of the
companies providing such services shut down as a result, she
In an interview, Ms. Levinson-Waldman said the restrictions
reflect a growing understanding that even information posted to a
public social network can be misused when gathered in large
quantities and paired with outside data sources.
"I could, if I had the time and inclination, scroll through
someone's public Facebook posts," she said. "That's very different
from a service that looks through everyone's social media to make
determinations about who's associating with whom, who's friends
with whom, or who's working together on organizing a protest."
Ms. Levinson-Waldman said the FBI's new request for proposals
demonstrates the mixed message that the government is sending
Facebook on the security of its users' data.
In its July 8 request for proposals, the FBI's wish list
includes the ability to "obtain the full social media profile of
persons-of-interest and their affiliation to any organization or
groups," as well as monitor the social-media activity of people in
specific neighborhoods and search for key words connected to
potential illegal activity. The FBI also said in the proposal that
it requires that its data gathering leave no trace, even to other
federal agencies, and states that the government would "maintain
sole ownership" of the data ingested into the monitoring
Federal contracting documents show the FBI began building its
capacity to monitor social media at least as far back as 2012. It
isn't clear how what the agency is seeking now would differ from
its past and current capabilities. The FBI generally refuses to
discuss its social-monitoring programs, and faces an ongoing
public-records lawsuit from the ACLU for its refusal to release
records pertaining to those efforts.
The possibility of an outside entity using public data to build
detailed profiles of individuals contains echoes of the Cambridge
Analytica controversy, in which the political-research firm
illicitly purchased Facebook data harvested from a personality quiz
app. Much of the data collected by Cambridge Analytica was already
viewable to other Facebook users, and the information -- such as
people's names, what they liked and what they shared with friends
-- wasn't sensitive when viewed on an account-by-account basis.
That same material, collected on tens of millions of users, was
used to build psychological profiles that were viewed by many as
invasive and caused outrage in both the U.S. and U.K.
The Cambridge Analytica episode was the impetus for Facebook's
landmark $5 billion settlement with the FTC.
Facebook has previously grappled with how much access to allow
government entities to its platform. Last year, Facebook suspended
social-media analytics firm Crimson Hexagon after The Wall Street
Journal reported that U.S. government agencies awarded more than 20
contracts to the firm, which also did work for a Russian nonprofit
with ties to the Kremlin. Facebook hadn't approved the contracts in
advance and at the time said it wasn't aware of them.
Crimson Hexagon, now a part of Brandwatch, was reinstated
several weeks later. It said in a blog post that none of its
clients had used Facebook data for surveillance purposes.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and now a senior fellow at the
Foreign Policy Research Institute, said analysis of social-media
activity is increasingly essential to preventing attacks and
responding to them, even as the U.S. struggles to find the right
balance between digital privacy and security.
" 'Protect us from everything before it happens but don't look
at any of our information' is not going to be a successful strategy
for stopping atrocities," Mr. Watts said. He added that law
enforcement should seek proper authority, including search
warrants, when seeking users' private data and communications.
Privacy experts contend that mass-violence events frequently
prompt politicians and law-enforcement officials to call on
social-media companies to help detect and prevent sudden outbursts
of violence, but that there is scant evidence their platforms could
predict such behavior.
--Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 08, 2019 11:25 ET (15:25 GMT)
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