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A friend request from the U.S. gov’t

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 4, 2010

A friend request from the U.S. gov’t

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 4, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Just as businesses and non-profits and interest groups have realized the power of social networking, so too has the government — in a whole lot of different ways. Politicians have their pages. The Army goes online to recruit, just for instance. But sometimes the motives aren’t quite so straightforward.

It is not clear what rules, if any, state or federal agencies have to follow when they try to friend you. Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Uncle Sam wants you to be his friend. The government is friending people on Facebook, monitoring Twitter and generally chatting up citizens on social networks. But what if your new friend is with the CIA, and using a fake identify? Are there rules for undercover agents who use social networks to get information?

Marcia Hofmann would like to find out.

MARCIA HOFMANN: We kept reading these anecdotes about law enforcement using this information in certain investigations, and we just kind of wondered is this something that’s really been very well thought out?

Hofmann is a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group focused on privacy issues. The Foundation sued the CIA, Justice and Defense Departments after reading reports that the CIA is monitoring social-media sites like Twitter. Hofmann says her group wants to find out if there are any rules in place. She says social networking is like a new frontier.

HOFMANN: New things come along, and it takes time for society to decide how to use them, and what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

Like is it OK for government tax collectors to dig around social-networking sites looking for possible tax cheats? Minnesota tax agents did just that, using MySpace. The tax dodger announced on the site that he was moving to a new job, and gave the name of his employer. That helped the tax agents track him down.

Clifford Fishman is a law professor at Catholic University in Washington. He says the government should be able to use social-networking sites to catch people breaking the law. But here’s where he draws the line.

CLIFFORD FISHMAN: The government should not inquire into somebody’s religious or political activities, even if that is part of a person’s profile on MySpace, for example. That ought not to be something the government should save or, except in highly unusual circumstances, look for.

But Fishman says there are legitimate government uses of social-networking sites, like the Army’s Facebook page and chat rooms. They’re very open. You know your friends are in uniform.

Suzanne Nagel heads the Army’s online recruiting efforts.

SUZANNE NAGEL: We have to fish where the fish are.

Nagel says recruiters wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t go on social-networking sites for prospective soldiers.

NAGEL: They’re reading blogs. They’re following Twitter, they’re doing all of these different things. And that’s why we’re doing social networking.

But the Pentagon doesn’t have any rules on use of social-networking sites. Professor Fishman says government agencies should police themselves. And he says the Justice Department shouldn’t reveal much about those regulations, because that could compromise undercover agents. Hofmann, the lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the government should be upfront, or face the legislative consequences.

HOFMANN: If, at some point in the future, there was ever a feeling that these agencies collect information inappropriately, I’m sure that Congress could pass a law to try to regulate it.

Until then, keep in mind that basic information you put online, like having a new job or where you went on vacation, can say a lot about you. Maybe too much.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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