The FBI put out a request for proposals last month seeking a contractor that will trawl social media to identify potential threats to American interests — something that Facebook and Twitter explicitly prohibit any third party from doing.
The effort by federal authorities predates the recent spate of mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio, but it echoes something President Trump said in the wake of those shootings, saying his administration would do more to bring social media to task for its role in giving a voice to domestic terrorists, and for not identifying potential shooters ahead of time.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the RFP says it wants a contractor to "proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests" on social media, in real time. This sets up a potential legal showdown between the FBI and these companies — with Facebook already having to comply with heightened privacy strictures on orders from another government agency, the FTC, which just fined the company $5 billion for previous privacy violations.
A Twitter spokesperson tells the Journal that it expressly prohibits 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's proposal request is careful to say that it wants to collect only publicly available data from social media sources "while ensuring all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met." But the effort sounds like a broad surveillance campaign about which most users of social media should probably be concerned.
Per the Journal:
The FBI contract seeks to gather publicly available data. That wouldn’t include private messages and posts but would allow the agency to collect information such as people’s names, user IDs and photos, which privacy experts say could be utilized in combination with outside data sources to build detailed profiles of users and track their social lives.
As CNN notes, this is not the first time the FBI has sought such a contract. In 2016, during the Obama administration, the FBI contracted with the company Dataminr — which is also used by CNN — to "search the complete Twitter firehose, in near real-time, using customizable filters" in order to identify "indicators and warnings" of potential threats.
Will Congress actually support this surveillance effort while it's simultaneously chastising Facebook for playing fast and loose with our data? And will any of this monitoring happen in the places where these shooters actually have been congregating and expressing themselves, like 4chan and 8chan (which is still currently offline)? Who knows!?