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Warrentless monitoring of social media on the rise

Federal law enforcement agencies are monitoring more email and social media communications than ever before, according to Justice Department documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Feds snooping 09 28 2012Enlarge
Attorney General Eric Holder (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal law enforcement agencies have ramped up their monitoring of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, without obtaining search warrants, newly released documents show.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, obtained documents from the Justice Department under a Freedom of Information Act request detailing the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance techniques used by federal agencies. The documents show a marked increase in monitoring social media beginning in 2009. 

Request to intercept social media communications jumped 80 percent from 2010 and 2011. 

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The pen register and trap and trace tools are physical devices attached to telephone lines that record incoming and outgoing numbers dialed. Chiefly used in the late 1980s by law enforcement agencies, interception capabilities are now built into phone companies’ call-routing hardware. 

The Justice Department authorized 1661 live intercepts on social media and email providers in 2011 and 922 in 2010. 

The ACLU argues that the decades-old law is being used incorrectly and is a violation of privacy. 

“The content/non-content distinction from which these starkly different legal requirements arise is based on an erroneous factual premise, specifically that individuals lack a privacy interest in non-content information. This premise is false. Non-content information can still be extremely invasive, revealing who you communicate with in real time and painting a vivid picture of the private details of your life,” read a report published by the ACLU. 

The ACLU went on to demand that the US Congress overhaul electronic surveillance laws, bringing attention to a bill introduced by Rep. Jarrold Nadler of New York. The bill would amend the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act of 1986 to reflect advances in technology that have taken place since the last was passed more than 25 years ago.

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"Congressman Nadler's bill is an opportunity to apply meaningful oversight to the government’s rapidly increasing use of a highly invasive surveillance power. These reforms are critical to protect our privacy and maintain an open and transparent government,” read the ACLU report. 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California recently introduced a bill into the US House of Representatives that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before looking into phone records, email accounts and communications on social media networks. 

"The internet is a thriving and vibrant engine for cultural and economic growth because it empowers people to connect and share information globally with limited restrictions," Lofgren told cnet. The bill will prevent "overbroad government surveillance," she predicted.

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