Feds searched Daily Kos, NPR for threats to Obama, memo reveals

By Stephen C. Webster
Sunday, October 17, 2010 21:28 EDT
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In the lead-up to President Obama’s inauguration, federal investigators conducted a major sweep of online social networks in search of threats.

In the process, according to a memo unearthed by a privacy advocate group, feds singled out numerous popular web sites and social networks to be scanned for threats and other information, including the liberal blogging community Daily Kos and National Public Radio.

A government memo obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) shows that federal investigators were encouraged to “friend” as many people as possible on social networks as a way of crowdsourcing intelligence operations.

In a memo titled “Social Networks and their Importance in FDNS” (fraud detection and national defense), which outlined online monitoring techniques in the lead-up to the 2009 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security writes …

Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of “friends” link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.

This social networking gives FDNS an opportunity to reveal fraud by browsing these sites to see if petitioners and beneficiaries are in a valid relationship or are attempting to deceive [United States Citizen and Immigration Services] about their relationship. Once a user posts online, they create a public record and timeline of their activities. In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber “site-visit” on a [sic] petitioners and beneficiaries.

Sites actively being watched by federal agents include Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Twitter, Flickr, Daily Kos, NPR, CNN’s iReport and others.

While the memo specifies that agents would not be collecting accutely private information such as full names, ip addresses or other contact information, it makes an exception for the tracking of usernames.

“First, the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target,” the EFF explained. “Nor does the memo address whether or not DHS agents must reveal their government affiliation or even their real name during the friend request, leaving open the possibility that agents could actively deceive online users to infiltrate their social networks and monitor the activities of not only that user, but also the user’s friends, family, and other associates. Finally, the memo makes several assumptions about social networking users that are not necessarily grounded in truth and reveal the author’s lack of understanding of the ways people use social networking sites.”

The group says it is concerned out-of-date or off-hand information given on social networks could result in full-blown citizenship investigations.

Though specifically mentioned in the report, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told Fox News that it does not permit its agents to “friend” anyone on social networks.

Read the full memo (PDF link).

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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