The American Civil Liberties Union has sued federal agencies for records related to their “social media surveillance activities.”
The ACLU lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, claims that the “failure” of seven government agencies to respond to a request for information pertaining to the “surveillance of social media users and speech” violates the Freedom of Information Act and raises concerns for freedom of speech and privacy of both “citizens and noncitizens alike.”
“Little information is available to the public on the tools and methods that defendants use to conduct surveillance of social media users and speech, or any policies and guidelines that govern such surveillance,” the complaint said. “Because the government’s growing use of social media surveillance implicates the online speech of millions of social media users, U.S. citizens and residents of all backgrounds have an urgent need to understand the nature, extent, and consequences of that surveillance.”
The ACLU attributes the existence of surveillance records to “publicly available information,” including accounts of the Trump administration’s increased monitoring of social media accounts of immigrants and visa applicants for “extreme” or “visa lifecycle vetting.” The complaint also points to a 2017 Department of Homeland Security report chronicling the trial of a task force that uses social media to screen individuals applying for immigration benefits. That report likewise noted that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—one of the defendants in the ACLU suit—launched a pilot program as well as expanded social media screening for similar ends.
“It’s clear that the federal government is ramping up its use of social media surveillance over the past several years with a focus in part on immigrant communities and communities of color,” Hugh Handeyside, an ACLU Foundation attorney listed on the complaint, said in an interview with The Recorder. “We saw a pretty urgent need for the public to have better perspective on any policies that may constrain them.”
The ACLU complaint said that in 2012, the FBI—one of the defendant agencies—looked to contractors for information on “a planned automated tool” with which the agency could “search and monitor information on social media platforms.” Likewise, the lawsuit indicated that the FBI in 2016 obtained “social media monitoring software that would give it full access to Twitter data.”
The lawsuit accuses every defendant agency of failing to respond to or reasonably search for records in accordance with a May 2018 FOIA request. However, Handeyside noted that the FBI “stands apart.”
“They came back with a Glomar response,” he said, noting the government “couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of records.”
“That’s a pretty aggressive move. The FBI is trying to go dark on its use of social media surveillance, but it’s clear they engage in this kind of surveillance, and the public has a right to know about it,” Handeyside said.
The Department of Justice, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, USCIS and the Department of State didn’t respond to requests for comment. Spokespeople for the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment.
Matthew Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at ACLU of Northern California, is also listed as an attorney bringing suit.