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FBI uses new tool: social networks

Goes undercover to investigate cases, suspects

By Richard Lardner
Associated Press / March 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Feds are on Facebook. MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter, too.

US law enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that offers a tantalizing glimpse of issues related to privacy and crime-fighting.

Think you know who’s behind that “friend’’ request? Think again. Your new “friend’’ just might be the FBI.

The document, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, makes it clear that US agents are already logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target’s friends or relatives, and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs, and video clips.

Among other purposes: Investigators can check suspects’ alibis by comparing stories told to police with Tweets sent at the same time about their whereabouts. Online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns, or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to robberies or burglaries.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, obtained the Justice Department document when it sued the agency and five others in federal court. The 33-page document underscores the importance of social-networking sites to US authorities. The foundation said it would publish the document on its website.

With agents going undercover, state and local police coordinate their online activities with the Secret Service, FBI, and other federal agencies in a strategy known as “deconfliction’’ to keep out of one another’s way.

“You could really mess up someone’s investigation because you’re investigating the same person and maybe doing things that are counterproductive to what another agency is doing,’’ said Detective Frank Dannahey of the Rocky Hill Police Department in Connecticut, a veteran of dozens of undercover cases.

A decade ago, agents kept watch over AOL and MSN chat rooms to nab sexual predators. But those text-only chat services are old-school compared with today’s social media, which contain mountains of personal data, photographs, videos, and audio clips — a potential treasure trove of evidence for cases.

The Justice Department document, part of a presentation given in August by top cybercrime officials, describes the value of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and other services to government investigators. It does not describe in detail the boundaries for using them.

“It doesn’t really discuss any mechanisms for accountability or ensuring that government agents use those tools responsibly,’’ said Marcia Hoffman, a senior lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The group sued in Washington to force the government to disclose its policies for using social-networking sites in investigations, data collection, and surveillance.

The foundation also obtained an Internal Revenue Service document that instructs employees on how to use to use Internet tools, including social-networking sites, to investigate taxpayers. The document states that IRS employees are barred from using deception or creating fake accounts to get information.

Covert investigations on social-networking services are legal and governed by internal rules, according to Justice Department officials. But they would not say what those rules are.