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Feds monitor Facebook: What you ‘Like’ may make you a terrorist

Dec 03, 20126 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsFacebook

Be careful on Facebook since the FBI monitors 'likes,' shares, comments and links. The feds built a terrorism case from Facebook activity and recorded Skype calls.

Have you ever “liked” something on Facebook that you don’t particularly like, but you are showing your support for a social media “friend”? The devil is indeed in the details and there are literally hundreds of words that are monitored by DHS. We’ve looked at all kinds of social media monitoring on government steroids and concluded that anything you say online might come back to bite you. Now you can add “likes” on Facebook to the ridiculous lists of how “you might be a terrorist if.”

On November 19, in Riverside County, CA, the FBI announced that four men were charged for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. The government alleges that Sohiel Omar Kabir, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro Santana and Arifeen David Gojali were plotting “to provide material support to terrorists by making arrangements to join al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to kill, among others, American targets, announced André Birotte, Jr., the United States Attorney in Los Angeles, and Bill Lewis, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.”

The FBI’s terrorism complaint, which is posted on Scribd, has a section devoted to the “Defendants’ Social Media.” Apparently the FBI counts the number of “likes” and can hold postings of images, videos, shared links to articles and videos, as well as comments against people.

27. Public items posted by KABIR to his social media accounts include photographs of himself, non-extremist content, radical Islamist content, and items reflecting a mistrust of mainstream media, abuses by the government, conspiracy theories, abuses by law enforcement, and the war in Afghanistan.

The FBI document goes on to detail Facebook “likes,” shared articles, videos, and comments that happened on December 7, 2011 and Jan 5, Jan 9, Feb 13, May 28, June 16, July 5, July 6, Sept 16 and Sept 17. This goes to prove of that anything you say online might come back to bite you some day…but this time you can add what you say via monitored Skype conversations to that list.

“While en route, SANTANA told the CS that he spoke with KABIR using Skype on or about July 9, 2012,” the document states before detailing what was discussed over Skype. Other Skype sessions were mentioned as well as what was said, but some of it seems to have been filtered through the FBI’s CS (confidential source). The FBI agent also revealed, “I have reviewed audio and video recordings of the Skype call and, based on other photographs of KABIR, believe that the image displayed during the call depicts KABIR.” Numerous other Skype conversations were also “recorded,” but it is unclear if this was via electronic eavesdropping of Skype or recorded by the CS. What is clear is that a simple document search found “Skype” or “Skyped” mentioned 23 times, not counting the reference explaining what Skype is.

After Microsoft acquired Skype, people wondered if the Microsoft patent for “Legal Intercept” was being used to tap Skype calls. Microsoft refused to give a “yes” or a “no” regarding whether it can intercept encrypted Skype calls. VoIP-Pal has a “Lawful Intercept” patent to wiretap other VoIP communications and recently accused Microsoft of “substantial similarities” between the two companies’ VoIP wiretapping patents.

If you read the FBI court document, then many of us certainly would not agree with or support the messages posted on Facebook. It is, however, the principle of the matter. “Much of the ‘evidence’ presented in the indictment is constitutionally protected speech, where the defendants express their views on the resistance to the occupation of Afghanistan,” according to the activist site Fight Back.

Mike Masnick of TechDirt wrote:

For all we know they may have actually been planning attacks on US targets and the indictment is entirely appropriate. But it certainly gives pause to suggest that “likes” and “shares” on Facebook are somehow evidence of terrorist intent. It could certainly be seen as having a chilling effect for anyone who might “like” or “share” content on Facebook that is critical of the US government.

But this chilling effect is not only worrisome for the U.S. In India, one woman “vented” via Facebook and posted an “offensive” comment which her friend “liked.” After a complaint was reported to the police over the comment, the woman “quickly posted an apology and closed her Facebook account,” according to the New York Times. But both women were “arrested and charged with engaging in speech that was offensive and hateful – for a post that many experts say was neither.” Although they were released on bail, “the case has stirred so much condemnation that the top police official in Mumbai ordered an investigation into the arrests.”

“We have bad laws when it comes to regulation of speech,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore. “Some types of speech are illegal online even though they are perfectly legal in print or other media.”

While these U.S. government agencies monitor social media, do they know how the game is played? Social media success is often built upon supporting your network of social networking “friends,” so a “like,” a positive “vote,” a comment, a Tweet or even a submission of an article for a friend does not necessarily mean you personally like and recommend it at all. Getting what you give in support is part of the dirty underbelly of the social media world. It can be tiring, but it is a necessary “evil” in the cog of social networking meeting SEO. That is the way the game is played, whether you or I agree with or like it or not. So my question is, does the government realize that is how the social media game is played? If so, then how can it hold the little white lies such as ‘likes’ against anyone?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.