ACLU Sues Federal Government for Social Media Surveillance Records

NEW YORK January 17, 2019 – The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Northern California today sued the federal government for information on its social media surveillance activities, including practices to monitor immigrants and visa applicants under President Trump’s “extreme vetting” initiative. The lawsuit was filed in the federal district court for the Northern District of California against the Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and State Department.

The ACLU notes in its complaint that government surveillance of social media users and speech increases the risk of self-censorship online, which raises free speech concerns, and can “lead to the disproportionate targeting of racial and religious minority communities, and those who dissent against government policies.” The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks the release of each agency’s guidelines and policies governing the use of social media surveillance, communications with private businesses or social media platforms, and materials related to purchasing or building a social media monitoring tools, among other records.

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“Social media surveillance has become a major priority for the federal government in recent years,” said Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “The public has a right to know how the federal government monitors social media users and speech, whether agencies are retaining social media content, and whether the government is using surveillance products to label activists and people of color as threats to public safety based on their First Amendment-protected conduct.”

The lawsuit was filed under the Freedom of Information Act after all seven agencies failed to produce records in response to a FOIA request filed last year. The FBI further stated that it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to [the ACLU’s] request.” However, the FBI has repeatedly acknowledged on official government websites that it contracts with data analytics firms to obtain “the mission critical social media monitoring needed by the FBI” and “software that parses and analyzes social media data.”

“The FBI’s extreme position flouts its obligation to make public information vital to the people’s interest and undermines safeguards critical to holding our government accountable,” said Matt Cagle, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Social media surveillance feeds the discriminatory real world targeting of Black people, immigrants, religious minority communities, and political dissidents. It’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying.”

In May of 2017, the government announced plans to implement the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” initiative for certain visa applicants, including seeking social media handles as part of the immigration process for applicants subjectively deemed suspect by immigration agents. Soon after, USCIS, ICE, and CBP revealed that they were retaining records in immigrants’ files that include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.” The State Department also announced last year plans to require nearly all of the 14.7 million people who annually apply for work or tourist visas to submit social media identifiers they have used in the past five years in order to travel or immigrate to the United States.

The ACLU’s complaint can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/american-civil-liberties-union-foundation-et-al-v-department-justice-et-al.