Court Battles

ACLU sues federal agencies in attempt to obtain social media surveillance records

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday sued seven federal agencies, seeking to obtain records on how the government surveils people on social media. 

The lawsuit seeks to compel the Justice Department (DOJ), FBI, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), State Department and others to turn over documents related to their social media surveillance, including the guidelines they use and their communications with social media platforms and private businesses. 

{mosads}The ACLU said it has submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to each of the agencies they are suing, but have not received substantive responses. 

“The FBI, for one, has repeatedly acknowledged that it engages in surveillance of social media posts,” the ACLU wrote in a blog post describing the lawsuit. “So it was surprising when the bureau responded to our Freedom of Information Act request on this kind of surveillance by saying that it ‘can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.’ ” 

The other federal agencies have not handed over documents related to their use of social media surveillance, the ACLU is claiming. The organization says it submitted the FOIA requests in May. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised concerns over social media surveillance in 2017 when it moved to collect social media information on all immigrants, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens.

DHS at the time published a new rule calling to include “social media handles and aliases, associated identifiable information and search results” in the department’s immigrant files. 

The State Department last year also proposed rules that would have asked all U.S. visa applicants to submit their social media usernames.

The ACLU cited those moves by DHS and the State Department as indicating the federal government could be monitoring social media to a greater extent than is widely known.

In the court filing, the ACLU raised concerns that the government’s surveillance of social media could make people censor their speech, raising concerns about freedom of speech. 
It noted that monitoring social media can disproportionately target “racial and religious minority communities, and those who dissent against government policies.”   

“Government monitoring of social media raises the risk that innocent people will be wrongly investigated or put on government watchlists based on that speech,” the ACLU said in the blog post.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. 

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