The FBI wants to spy on your Facebook to monitor threats in real-time

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Amid the growing threat of homegrown terrorism, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is now actively looking for technologies and bidders who can offer them a service that would monitor social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram for any forms of threat to security and alert them real-time.

In a formal request for proposal document in the bureau’s website, the FBI is tapping the private sector to provide them with “fixed-price contract for the purpose of acquiring subscriptions services to a social media early alerting tool in order to mitigate multifaceted threats.”

The FBI, through the Public Source Program Office (PSPO), a group that is tasked to manage public contracts, cited the growing number of threats that are affecting the “national interest.” They said that the use of social media would enable them to “detect, disrupt, and investigate an ever-growing diverse range of threats.”

Amid the growing pressure for government agencies to protect American’s data and privacy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation wants a contract that can provide them with a social media monitoring system that can “lawfully” collect and acquire information that they can act on in terms of threats posted and who posted them in real-time.

The search for an FBI contractor for the said social media monitorings system has begun since early July, and the agency is eyeing to contract a service that has the capability to give them enough relevant information regarding a posted threat including social media user’s ID numbers, IP addresses, and telephone numbers if necessary. Content filtering supports prioritization; specific subjects, identifiers, geographic location, keywords, photographic tagging are also requested by the agency.

The aim of the law enforcement agency is for information to be sent to their control center in real-time via email to either a team account or individual user accounts based on real-time threat, incidents as they tie to the geolocation of interest.

“Selected tool must allow for customization of delivery frequency, the content of interest and geographical layers by the user directly,” the FBI said in their request paper.

For those who are interested to know how the bureau would handle the information, they said that they will be setting up security mechanisms for contractors not to exploit the system “for interface development, disclose information or produce material acquired as a result of, or derived from operational activities of FBI personnel on their interface.”

“No release of information shall be made without the prior written consent of the Office of Public Affairs and the Contracting Officer. The contractor and author are warned that disclosure is not without potential consequences. The FBI will make every effort to review proposed publications in a timely manner to accommodate these and other publications. These obligations do not cease upon completion of the contract,” they added.

This is not the first time that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has leveraged the power of social media to respond to threats proactively. In 2016, the law enforcement agency hired the social media analysis company Dataminr to allow the government agency to “search the complete Twitter firehose, in near real-time, using customizable filters.” However, the deal with Dataminr was only for the firm to look at open-source information, and the FBI is upping their game for a more advanced social media exploitation this time.

It was still unclear if the goal of the bureau with this new procurement is to expand the ability of Dataminr to monitor social media platforms for threats or if they are going to go all the way into using technology to technically spy on US citizens. The agency refused to comment citing that the procurement process is still ongoing.

As expected, the move of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to closely monitor social media platforms was met with skepticisms from the members of privacy advocacy organizations. Many of them have cited the possibility of abuse of this system to be used against dissenters and other oppressed Americans.

“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,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “Treating social media users like suspects won’t make us more safe, but it will make us less free.”

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