The FBI tracking your movements? There’ll be an app for that

January 30, 2012

FBI anti-privacyIf you use Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably seen it: discussions of terrorist plots posted publicly.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is finally doing something about it, though.

Earlier this month, the FBI issued a Request for Information (RFI) to the IT industry asking for a “social media app.”

This app should, according to the RFI, have the “ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence” so that the FBI can “quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats.”

The proposed app, in short, is a data-compilation tool that draws its information from publicly available records, but it must have the capability to do so in real-time.

“Publicly available records” here means public information from social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter) along with that from news sites such as “Fox News, CNN, [and] MSNBC.”

It then wants the app to mash this information (along with existing FBI intelligence) with map data.

Sounds harmless enough, right?

If someone makes a tweet with “#jihad” or “#deathtotheinfidels,” the FBI can analyze that data with both current news stories and the FBI’s own intelligence and overlay it across a map, and therefore try to prevent terror attacks before they happen.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few more elements to this “app” that should make it a bit worrisome to privacy advocates.

First, this app will be able to retain the data that it collects.

This means that even if you delete what you post, it would be a good bet that the FBI has already logged it.

Next, the app “must” be able to provide a map information layer of “traffic video,” which the RFI describes as the “ability to display video feeds from traffic cameras to monitor traffic patterns, obstructions, bottle necks, protesters, and flash mobs.”

As if that wasn’t unsettling enough in itself, it becomes much more so when combined with the FBI’s own intelligence data (i.e. its collection of facial, iris, palm, and voice recognition data (see this post for more)).

This means, for instance, that the FBI could track who was where and when, and it can do this with very little effort.

Police GPS TrackerThough it’s tempting to believe that the FBI will only use this information to foil terrorist plots, the RFI almost explicitly tells us the app will be used for much more than this.

Specifically, the document tells IT developers that the FBI will need to analyze social media to “predict…future actions taken by bad actors, and “detect instances of deception in intent or action by bad actors.”

That all sounds fine until you consider the fact that there’s really no perfect way to tell in advance who could be a “bad actor.”

Consequently, to err on the side of not missing any details that may be helpful later, the FBI will likely “develop pattern-of-life matrices” on anyone and everyone it can.

To summarize, the FBI has or will have access to information from social media sites, news sites, public records, local driver’s license and motor vehicle registration databases, traffic cameras, and any other “open source.”

The FBI has or is looking for the capability to compile that information to not only be able to track the locations of any individual at any given time, but to be able to predict an individual’s future behavior patterns.

To top it all off, the FBI wants to have an app that collects and compiles that data automatically.

The agency will likely be able to sidestep any legal implications by only accessing “public data.”

Nevertheless, these increasingly aggressive data mining efforts by law enforcement, combined with the raw volume of personal information available on the Internet and technological advances that make collecting and compiling that data easy, may signal that a change is needed.

Namely, if the current status quo continues, the only way to be able to avoid a “reasonable search and seizure” will be to stay inside your home with the blinds closed.