ACLU suit seeks social media surveillance records from seven fed agencies

The U.S. government’s social media surveillance activities, including the monitoring of immigrants and visa applications under the Trump administration’s extreme vetting effort, are in the crosshairs of a Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Northern California.

The suit, which takes aim at actions of the Justice Department, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and State Department, said government monitoring of social media and speech could lead to self-censorship and “the disproportionate targeting of racial and religious minority communities” as well as “those who dissent against government policies.”

Noting that “a person’s speech and behavior on social media – including information that is not protected using privacy controls provided by social media companies themselves –can reveal extremely sensitive details about that person’s private life,” the suit pointed to various surveillance activities in the agencies, including the State Department’s recent decision to expand its collection of social media information and the Justice Department’s use of that kind of information for law enforcement purposes.

The rights organizations want to compel the agencies to release their guidelines for social media surveillance as well as communications with social media platforms and private enterprises. They also want information about agencies purchasing and building social media tools.

“Social media surveillance has become a major priority for the federal government in recent years,” Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a release.“The public has a right to know how the federal government monitors social media users and speech, whether agencies are retaining social media content, and whether the government is using surveillance products to label activists and people of color as threats to public safety based on their First Amendment-protected conduct.”

The rights advocates filed the suit after the agencies did not cough up records request under FOIA in 2018 and the release notes that the FBI responded by saying it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to the [ACLU's] request even though the bureau has stated on government websites that it has contracted with data analytics companies for “the mission critical social media monitoring needed by the FBI” as well as the “software that parses and analyzes social media data.”

The bureau's "extreme position flouts its obligation to make public information vital to the people’s interest and undermines safeguards critical to holding our government accountable,” Matt Cagle, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said in the release. “Social media surveillance feeds the discriminatory real-world targeting of black people, immigrants, religious minority communities, and political dissidents. It’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying.”

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