Do the FBI monitor people’s social media activity and online posts? Is it legal?
Federal law enforcement agencies may be allowed to track your online footprint at a level much higher than many think.
Since Edward Snowden’s NSA leak that detailed the ways in which the government was collecting data on US citizens, many are curious as to how much one’s social media account is tracked by federal agencies.
In the wake of increasing attacks from right-wing domestic terrorists, new reports are highlighting just how much information federal law enforcement agencies are able to collect on citizens without opening an investigation.
USA TODAY reported on an FBI arrest of an Ohio man, Adam Bies, who had been posting threats against the agency under a pseudonym on Gab. Bies is a forty-six-year-old has pled not guilty to fourteen federal charges, including several counts related to making threats against a federal officer.
“I sincerely believe that if you work for the FBI, then you deserve to DIE,” posted Bies, adding later that he knew he would “die at the hands of these … law enforcement scumbags.”
“My only goal is to kill more of them before I drop.”
The FBI was able to track these threats through a little-known program called SOMEX.
What is SOMEX?
USA Today has reported that SOMEX “was created to assist in identifying “unknown subject victim, or location information” when there’s a threat to life by using publicly available information.” This information includes social media.
When the posts were identified by FBI agents, federal prosecutors asked a judge for a warrant to arrest Bies. Using the evidence collected from Gab, the warrant was approved, and more than a dozen agents showed up at Bies’ home. After calling on Bies to exit the house, he did so carrying an assault weapon.
As of 18 August, Bies is still behind bars and has been labeled a flight risk with a judge approving his pre-trial imprisonment, which could last until October.
A pattern of downplaying the surveillance of social media
Prosecuters used the social media posts that were collected through SOMEX, shedding light on the far-reaching powers the federal government has when it comes to social media and personal information. SOMEX stands for social media exploitation, and the program is much more covert than many citizens understand. The FBI told USA TODAY that the FBI “can conduct almost unlimited monitoring of public-facing social media, as long as it’s doing so for law enforcement purposes.” This means that threats one makes online can be used as evidence in a civil or criminal suit by the Department of Justice.
These comments were further corroborated by former FBI agent Michael German, who told USA TODAY that “The FBI has tremendous powers to investigate long before there’s a reasonable criminal predicate.” A current fellow at the New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, German, added that in recent years, the FBI has misled the public as to “the scope of their” authority when it comes to reviewing material online.
In short, since the information collected by federal agents is public, the acts are totally legal. The discomfort many feel highlights the need for legislatures to think of better ways to protect data in the 21st century.