SAN FRANCISCO (CN)- A federal judge ruled mostly in favor of government agencies in a Freedom of Information action where privacy advocates sought documents related to law enforcement’s use of social networking websites in criminal investigations. The judge ordered the FBI and ICE to submit supplemental declarations clarifying
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a 2009 federal complaint that the government has blown off its requests for documents related to surveillance on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The group says government agencies may use such sites to collect information “for laughable reasons,” but they have not explained the extent of its spying or “disclosed if any restrictions and oversight is in place to prevent abuse.”
The complaint cites numerous instances of government spying, from a fugitive tracked by investigators through his Facebook account, to the case of Elliot Madison, a social worker whose Twitter messages to protesters during the G-20 summit led to an FBI search of his house.
Electronic Frontier sought information about how data from social networking sites are used in criminal investigations.
The current defendants in the case are the FBI, Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The parties moved for summary judgment, which U.S. District Judge Susan Illston partly granted on Monday.
The government defendants claimed they complied with all of their FOIA duties, while Electronic Frontier claimed the agencies were still withholding documents, and that ICE did not conduct an adequate search.
The arguments centered around documents that would allegedly harm the agencies’ ability to investigate crimes, and documents that relate to well-known or routine procedures.
Judge Illston disagreed with Electronic Frontier’s argument that ICE’s use of social networking is so “well known or routine” that the documents should be released.
“EFF has not explained – for example through expert testimony regarding the operation of various social networking sites – how the publicly-known fact that ICE uses social networking sites for its gang investigations by itself means that the detailed instructions and guidance the agency internally uses for those activities are either well known or can be fully anticipated by the public,” the judge wrote.
The FBI, however, was ordered to submit a supplemental declaration addressing the issue of redacting certain “techniques” and “procedures” in the documents it produced to Electronic Frontier.
“The FBI must declare that, for each specific redaction of a technique or procedure, that the information withheld goes beyond a generally known technique or procedure,” the judge wrote.
The agencies appropriately withheld other documents that were protected by attorney-client privilege, including communications that deal with subpoena procedures for social networking sites, the court found.
The judge was unable to tell if ICE’s search for requested documents was reasonable, because the agency did not address why certain employees only searched their own computer files.
Judge Illston ordered ICE to submit a supplemental declaration addressing the issue.
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