The Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly been searching for private contractors who could gather and feed to law enforcement tremendous amounts of user data straight from social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
The U.S. government needs “real-time access to a full range of social media exchanges” to better fight terrorist groups and domestic threats, the FBI said in its request for bids, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
But the FBI’s effort to gain far-reaching visibility into the social media activities of both Americans and foreigners risks clashing with other parts of the federal government that have sought to clamp down on Silicon Valley for data breaches, privacy violations, and other cases in which user information was shared without consent.
The FBI’s search began in early July. It calls for providers that can give law enforcement agents advanced warning of violent incidents as well as the ability to summon a given social media user’s ID numbers, IP addresses and telephone numbers if necessary.
This is not the first time the FBI has sought access to a wide array of social media data. In 2016, the agency announced it had hired the social media analysis company Dataminr to allow law enforcement to “search the complete Twitter firehose, in near real-time, using customizable filters.” Dataminr, which looks at open source information only, is also contracted by media outlets including CNN.
It was not immediately clear whether the FBI aims to expand on Dataminr’s capabilities with the new contract, or whether it is already doing some kind of monitoring of Facebook and Instagram. The FBI declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the procurement process.
Still, the volume and depth of information sought by the FBI highlights the agency’s interest in monitoring internet users on a broad basis. Under the FBI’s proposal, winning bidders must help the government “proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States.”
Social media platforms routinely provide data to law enforcement on specific individuals. But that process relies on law enforcement making individualized requests or subpoenas.
Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Facebook declined to comment, but referred CNN Business to its existing app developer policies, which prohibit Facebook users’ information from being shared with “unauthorized” parties.
“For example, don’t use data obtained from us to provide tools that are used for surveillance,” the Facebook policy reads.
The FBI procurement effort could be complicated by recent moves by Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and others to step up privacy standards at tech companies.
Last month, the FTC announced a record-breaking $5 billion settlement with Facebook over its leakage of user data to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The settlement requires Facebook to restructure its board and provide greater oversight over company decisions, though critics of the deal argued it was far too weak and did not do enough to hold CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally accountable. The FTC didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Senate lawmakers have been trying to hammer out national-level privacy legislation that could clarify what internet users’ rights are in relation to the massive tech companies who mine their behavioral information to sustain powerful positions in online advertising and e-commerce.