Hot Docs: Criminal complaint shows the personal details the FBI collects from social media

December 6, 2012

Facebook Magnifying glassAfter almost a decade of social media’s presence, you’ve probably heard the following warning repeatedly:

Be careful what you post on your [Facebook/Twitter/Instagram] account, because you never know who might see it.

Actually, you’ve probably already heard stories about individuals who have landed themselves in trouble at work or school because of something they Tweeted or a photo that they were tagged in on Facebook.

Of course, there are worse consequences from a questionable social media posting than just losing your job; you could get arrested.

Last summer, I wrote about how a Reuters review of Westlaw’s legal database revealed that law enforcement routinely gets warrants for Facebook user information and how Facebook is all but compliant in these requests.

Considering the treasure trove of information that social media sites represent to law enforcement agencies, this shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.

These “law enforcement agencies” also include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which, as of last January, was looking for information from the IT industry on the development of a “social media app” that would compile information from social media sites in real-time.

In case you were wondering whether the FBI is currently tracking social media sites, it is, and a criminal complaint from November 16, 2012, is proof enough.

Hot Doc: U.S. v. Kabir

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The complaint is directed at four individuals accused of plotting to commit various acts of terrorism.

How did the FBI know to begin investigating these individuals?

You guessed it: by watching their Facebook pages.

Although the section on “Defendants’ Social Media” is a relatively small portion of the complaint’s entire factual summary, the portions pertaining to the defendants’ Facebook activity seems to be the starting point for the FBI’s investigation.

What did the defendants’ post on Facebook that caught the FBI’s attention?

The posts weren’t anything about the planning of any actual acts of terror, but instead included “non-extremist content, radical Islamist content, and items reflecting a mistrust of mainstream media, abuses by the government, conspiracy theories, abuses by law enforcement, and the war in Afghanistan.”

These “radical postings” included “videos and links to videos of Al-Qa’ida leader Anwar Al-Awlaqi and his lectures,…videos depicting terrorist training camps and related activities, videos depicting improvised explosive device (“IED”) attacks, and articles regarding the death of American soldiers in Afghanistan,” among several other kinds of videos.

Several of these posts were shared, Liked, and commented on between the defendants on Facebook, which the complaint specifically notes.

At some point, an FBI online covert employee (OCE) presumably Friended one or more of the defendants, and, aside from collecting information about all of the individuals, engaged them in conversations about Islamic Jihad.

The complaint’s allegations go on to describe many other activities on the part of the defendants that, if true, makes it pretty clear that the FBI caught the right people on this one.

However, there are a few details about the complaint that personally leave me troubled.

For one, it seems that the FBI red flags social media posts that reflect “a mistrust of mainstream media,” or that pertain to “abuses by the government, conspiracy theories, [or] abuses by law enforcement.”

In addition, the FBI apparently has undercover agents send Friend requests to the subjects of investigations and spy on them after they are Facebook Friends, which I guess shouldn’t surprise anyone all that much, but it just serves as further confirmation that you shouldn’t add anyone as a Facebook Friend that you don’t know.

Of course, the best advice for avoiding run-ins with the law because of a Facebook post (besides remaining law abiding) is being very careful about what you post on Facebook.