The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the CIA, the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and three other government agencies on Tuesday for allegedly refusing to release information about how they are using social networks in surveillance and investigations.
The nonprofit Internet rights watchdog group formally asked more than a dozen agencies or departments in early October to provide records about federal guidelines on the use of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr for investigative or data gathering purposes, according to the lawsuit.
The requests were prompted by published news reports about how authorities are using social networks to monitor citizen activities and aid in investigations. For example, according to the lawsuit, government officials have: used Facebook to hunt for fugitives and search for evidence of underage drinking; researched the activities of an activist on Facebook and LinkedIn; watched YouTube to identify riot suspects; searched the home of a social worker because of Twitter messages regarding police actions he sent during the G-20 summit; and used fake identities to trick Facebook users into accepting friend requests.
The EFF needs access to the information to "help inform Congress and the public about the effect of such uses and purposes on citizens' privacy rights and associated legal protections," the lawsuit said.
None of the agencies contacted had complied with the EFF's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and only one, the IRS, had asked for an extension, according to the suit.
The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, names the defendants as the CIA, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury.
The FOIA requests and the lawsuit were filed on behalf of the EFF by the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.
Government surveillance of citizens, particularly in areas they consider private, should have oversight, said Shane Witnov, a law student who worked on the case for the Samuelson Clinic.
"Social-networking sites are becoming a part of the way we communicate every day and everyone thinks they are sharing information [on the sites] with just their friends," he said. "Governments are using the sites but not in the way [citizens] expect when they sign up."
The government agencies could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Updated 4:55 p.m. PST with comment from Samuelson Clinic law student.