US govt uses social networking to track citizenship applicants

14 Oct 2010

The US government has been using social networks to track people in many ways, including monitoring people who apply for US citizenship.

The EFF found documents dated back to May 2008 by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services which noted that, by friending people applying for citizenship, they can determine if applicants “are in a valid relationship or are attempting to deceive [United States Citizen and Immigration Services] about their relationship”

“Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels[sic] a need to have a large group of “friends” link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know,” read the memo.

“This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS [Office of Fraud Detection and National Security] to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.”

The documents also note that using social networks like MySpace is like doing an “unannounced cyber ‘site-visit’” on petitioners.

While the EFF acknowledges that there are ‘good reasons’ for government agencies to use all the tools they can, including social networks, to hunt for fraud, they said the memo raises questions about the agency’s conduct.

“First, the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target,” said the EFF.

They also pointed out that the memo does not state whether agents must reveal their affiliation to the government or their real name when friending someone, meaning that they could activel deceive someone into viewing their personal details and the details of friends and family.

The EFF also criticizes the memo for engaging in “armchair psychology” in assuming that users with a large network of friends have “narcissistic tendiancies.”

They also find the fact that the memo assumes a user’s online profile actively reflects their offline life is ‘disturbing.’

“While Facebook and MySpace would like their users’ profiles to always be current and accurate, users may have valid reasons for keeping some of their offline life out of their online profiles,” said the EFF, when users make their relationship statuses private.

“Unfortunately, this memo suggests there’s nothing to prevent an exaggerated, harmless or even out-of-date off-hand comment in a status update from quickly becoming the subject of a full citizenship investigation.”