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How Long Before Facebook Hands Over Your Personal Information to the Government?

It may only be a matter of time until social networking sites are forced to relinquish your personal information to the government.

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While the entire picture of government surveillance and investigative tactics online isn’t clear, pieces of the broader story have surfaced, helping citizens better understand what may happen to their personal information on the Internet. Facebook disclosed to Newsweek in 2009 that government orders for user information were flowing into the company at an extraordinary rate of 10 to 20 per day.

Verizon testified to Congress four years ago that it faced tens of thousands of requests for customer data annually. Google’s “ Transparency Report,” praised by observers as a leading example of openness, lists how many it receives from countries around the globe: nearly 4,300 in the United States alone during a six-month period last year.

Information you release publicly on the Internet is another matter — things like unlocked tweets that anyone can read or Facebook photos and messages not restricted by privacy settings. Personnel at the Department of Homeland Security scan the web as part of its Social Media Monitoring Initiative using dozens of key search terms. The list includes “cops,” “riot,” “radicals,” “decapitated” and more.

Documents made public in November showed that homeland security officials in Pennsylvania tracked the Twitter accounts of people who had not broken any laws, including elderly anti-war protesters associated with Quaker activism. And EFF learned last year that federal investigators were being taught to deceptively “friend” people on Facebook who were applying to become citizens, thereby enabling the government to snoop for relationship details.

So remember, the next time you see a random friend request on Facebook, or that unknown follow on Twitter, it could be the government.

G.W. Schulz, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been covering homeland security issues since 2008.

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