Users of social media platforms might want to be careful what is posted moving forward, as law enforcement officials may be watching. The FBI has invested millions of dollars into social media tracking software, according to a report from the Washington Post. The article details that the law enforcement agency has invested up to $27 million in software that monitors platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, the Dark Web, VK and Telegram.
The software licensed by the FBI is called Babel X, which allows users of the application to search social media sites within geographic and other adjustable parameters. The contract between the FBI and Babel allows for 5,000 licenses of the software at a value of $5 million with the option to increase to up to $27 million. The new contract between the law enforcement agency and the software company is the most expensive agreement contract for software by a civilian agency ever.
“The FBI uses social media tools to search publicly available information pertinent to predicated investigations in order to identify and respond to threats of violence, acts of terrorism, and potential federal violations within the scope of the FBI’s mission,” the FBI said in a statement published by the Washington Post.
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Privacy concerns for social media users?
While some may view this procurement of this software as a deterrent to harmful and potentially dangerous social media discourse, others feel this may end up as an infringement of civil liberties.
“Unfortunately, the FBI and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies will happily use ‘attacks’ like the January 6th event to violate the privacy of American citizens,” said Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy. “While the monitoring of social platforms can help law enforcement to plan for possible incidents, my fear is that it may eventually lead to a ‘Minority Report’ type situation where the FBI and other agencies may arrest or otherwise detain citizens that haven’t actually violated any laws. I also don’t think we can count on the FBI to use the software only for its stated purpose. If there is a way to misuse a tool, you can rely on government agencies to do so.”
The FBI says it expects the 5,000 licenses to run 20,000 keyword searches on the multiple social media platforms per month, but said this was merely an estimate. Further stipulations of the contract were not made public. The law enforcement agency did add that tools such as Babel X “provide critical information without being intrusive because the data they return is publicly available,” per an FBI document.
While most would agree the opportunity for misuse of the tool may be a reality, others are wondering about the cascading effect of a law enforcement agency using software to monitor social media at large.
“I can foresee several issues with the FBI monitoring social media,” said Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech. “This is bulk surveillance, which means the vast majority of people whom the FBI is monitoring are not suspected of any crime. [But] it sets a dangerous precedent. Dictators in autocratic countries could contract with Babel X or a similar company to spy on dissidents, activists, journalists, and others who speak out.”