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U.S. Government Exploits Our Facebook 'Narcissism' To Detect Fraud, Fake Marriages

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 10/14/10 11:57 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:00 PM ET

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A 2008 memo obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) confirms it: big brother is watching.

The report by the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is entitled "Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS" (Office of Fraud Detection and National Security), offers agents detailed instructions on the ins-and-outs of social networks, including how to join, how to expand friend networks once one is a member, what the most popular social networking sites are, and more.

But the document also raises privacy concerns as it stresses the importance of social media for surveillance--while presuming the accuracy of the information we post about ourselves online--and highlights how agents can and should use social networks to sniff out fraud.

"Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of 'friends' link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don't even know," the USCIS explains. "This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities."

As the EFF notes, the document dangerously presumes that the information people post online is true and complete, and fails to consider that users' online profiles may not be comprehensive, accurate reflections of their offline selves.

The memo also suggests that agents should treat online profiles as a "cyber 'site-visit'" and look to them to spot fake relationships and other types of fraud.

"Generally, people on these sites speak honestly in their network because all of their friends and family are interacting with them via lM's (Instant Messages), Blogs (Weblog journals), etc.," advises the USCIS memo. "This social networking gives FDNS an opportunity to reveal fraud by browsing these sites to see if petitioners and beneficiaries are in a valid relationship or are attempting to deceive CIS about their relationship. Once a user posts online, they create a public record and timeline of their activities. In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber "site-visit" on a petitioners and beneficiaries."

Another concern raised by the document is that fails to specify if there are limits to how frequently and in what cases social network surveillance should be used. The EFF writes, "the memo makes no mention of what level of suspicion, if any, an agent must find before conducting such surveillance, leaving every applicant as a potential target."

The USCIS document is hardly the first evidence of feds creating fake online profiles to monitor suspects. The Associated Press reported earlier this year,

Law enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, even going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that surfaced in a lawsuit.


The document shows that U.S. agents are logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target's friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips.

Read a PDF of the document here.

What do you think of these tactics? Are they justified or are they an invasion of privacy? Weigh in below.

(via Ars Technica)

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