FBI Wants to Monitor Social Media for 'Emerging Threats'

The FBI wants to develop a program that would track Twitter and Facebook updates.

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The FBI might soon be watching your tweets and status updates.

The agency recently decided to explore developing a web application that would monitor user updates on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with news reports from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

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The application would be developed so the FBI could "quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats." According to the proposal, FBI agents would "man a communications center," sending out real-time alerts, "developing threat profiles" and "detecting potential threats."

Ian Condry, an associate professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the technology means people should think twice before haphazardly posting on Facebook or Twitter.

"The FBI and others would find it very useful to predict the future," he says. It's an idea that's not going to go away no matter how bad an idea it is. I'd be very careful about saying 'That show last night was the bomb,'" Condry says.

According to an FBI spokesman, words that would trip off the proposed system could include "lockdown, bomb, suspicious package, white powder, active shoot." Although the spokesman says the program would use only "publicly available open source information," and the FBI's privacy and civil liberties unit will review the legal implications of monitoring social networks, privacy experts say the development is troubling.

"It is evidence the FBI is seeking to investigate ordinary Americans who are suspected of no crime without any criminal predicate," says John Verdi, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This program is, almost on its face, unlikely to be effective. And it poses the real risk that free speech will be chilled if individuals believe the government and law enforcement agents are reviewing their posts."

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If it all sounds like something out of the movie 'Minority Report,' you're not the only one. Trying to stop crime before it happens, says Condry, is a "fantasy" that is alluring to law enforcement. "Where would you get this idea? Probably from science fiction," he says.

"You might catch supposedly dangerous people, but it's unlikely they're a threat. If they were really dangerous, they would know better than to brag about the fact that they're going to bomb the Pentagon."

The FBI says the program could be useful in a number of investigative areas, including recon and surveillance, counter intelligence, and fighting terrorism and cybercrime. The program would instantly alert agents to "breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats" that trip automatically-defined search parameters. The FBI proposal says it would monitor any "publicly available" updates, but the spokesman did not respond to whether that would include Facebook updates intended for friends or Twitter direct messages.

The FBI proposal mirrors that of other law enforcement and government agencies. According to the FBI spokesman, "the type of social media application being researched by the FBI, to view publicly available information, is no different than applications used by other government agencies."

For the past three years, the Department of Homeland Security has monitored Facebook and Twitter updates.