Government agencies working to train their investigators to leverage data in social media

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has published a set of information detailing some of the ways that U.S. federal agencies collect information from social networking and other online sites in the scope of law enforcement investigations. The documents posted include training materials from the Justice Department explicitly on gathering evidence from social networking sites, preceded by a short memo that gives a little bit of context for the types of social networking behavior that might spark such an investigation. The documents that EFF obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act filing, are noteworthy in part for stipulations that government employees, including those doing the investigating, shouldn’t use government computers to access the sites in question. While there may be a number of reasonable investigative justifications for using alternate-channel access, it calls to mind some of the other areas in which the use of government equipment or facilities is prohibited for certain activities (such as political activities covered under the Hatch Act), where government employees are more or less free to conduct these same activities on their own time using their own non-government resources.

Online investigation methods by law enforcement have received a lot of attention lately, especially in the wake of the publication of the Global Criminal Compliance Handbook leaked from Microsoft, which provides guidance and instructions to law enforcement authorities about the type of personal information Microsoft stores about users of its online services, how long it keeps that information, and how investigators can go about getting it. This was a particularly well publicized example of ways that major companies facilitate criminal investigations; laws exist in many countries requiring service providers in different industries to retain user information and make it available to authorized investigators when asked, and the U.S. government has also expressed an interest in establishing some of these requirements where they don’t already exist.