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The FBI Is on Facebook

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It’s been a bad week for privacy.

Google’s (GOOG) new privacy policy brought on a big backlash after it became clear that users who don’t want their information shared across Google services have only one option: close their accounts. On top of that, it might soon be illegal to jailbreak an Apple (AAPL) iPhone.

Well, yesterday, things got just a little bit worse with the announcement that the FBI plans to monitor activity on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. According to the Atlantic, the bureau is currently looking for someone to develop a system that aggregates and monitors public online postings.

Basically, they want something that can quickly parse millions of daily posts and see if any of them contain threats to the US. As of right now, it is unclear how many people tweet their plans for domestic terrorism.

The FBI’s program is not the first of its kind. The DOD’s advanced projects wing DARPA is also working on an aggregator -- they’re looking for “memetrackers” to analyze social networks -- and the CIA has maintained a similar system for years.

The difference is that the FBI’s primary jurisdiction is inside of the US while the DOD and CIA both operate abroad.  In theory, this move could bring down a lot more scrutiny on American social media.

The bureau has been very clear that it plans to only use publicly available information. This info is already given to advertisers and marketers. Still, considering all the confusion over Facebook’s privacy settings, it’s difficult to be completely reassured.

The idea that the government is sifting through private info can and should make many people squeamish. That being said, notions of privacy have radically changed in the Facebook era. Anyone who uses Facebook or other social media sites should be aware of this fact.

Beyond that, this is certainly not the first instance of the government taking an interest in questionable Facebook posts. For example, there’s a hilarious 2010 episode of This American Life -- you can read the transcript here, but it’s more fun to listen -- involving comedian Joe Lipari’s attempts to clear his name after an anti-Apple Store Facebook post is noticed by the police.

The lesson: Don’t make threats on Facebook.
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