Secret Service Investigates Offhand Twitter Gripe
When Amber Shishido answered the door to her Bushwick apartment on September 27, she found herself face to face with a man wearing a plaid orange shirt and jeans. He asked if she could answer a few questions.
She had just woken up and didn’t want to be bothered. “I was rude,” she admitted.
Suddenly, two federal agents dressed in black suits appeared behind the questioner. They said they were all from the Secret Service and investigating threats made against President Barack Obama’s life.
On September 24, the President had been in New York attending this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly, and the executive motorcade tied up traffic throughout the city. Shishido’s roommate, Monique Frazier, was frustrated by the delays as she returned home from work in Midtown.
Sometime that evening, Frazier vented her anger on her Twitter account. “She was irate about having to stand on the corner for twenty minutes with a bunch of tourists,” Shishido said. “She tweeted that she wanted to ‘kill Obama,’ but it wasn’t a death threat. It was definitely in a joking manner.”
Frazier declined comment for this article.
Shishido and another roommate fully cooperated with the Secret Service agents. They wanted to know about Frazier. They went through her room and asked her roommates “questions about her character,” Shishido said.
They asked Shishido how long she had known Frazier, if she had ever been known to be associated with any “assassin groups,” if she stalked people, or owned any automatic weapons. “[They asked] whether she traveled a lot and if I knew where to, and where she works and what she does in her spare time,” Shishido added.
A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment on the situation, explaining that the agency is not at liberty to discuss security protocol.
While Frazier’s case may simply be that the Secret Service was going through their due diligence, it raises the issue of privacy and security in the age of the Internet. As the Web has become a superhighway of information and communication utilized by hundreds of millions worldwide, the government is trying to keep up with the endless data that traverses it in an effort to monitor activity that may pose a threat to national security.
On September 27, The New York Times reported that the Obama Administration will propose new legislation next year expanding government wiretapping capabilities to include mobile e-mail transmitters like BlackBerries and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. But with the new regulations, it is possible that incidents where ordinary civilians are forced to deal with authorities on the basis of misinterpreted information may become increasingly common.
In their interrogation, Shishido said the Secret Service asked if and how often the roommates used social networking sites. Shishido also said that the agents showed them a folder containing glossy Facebook photos of Frazier that they had collected.
“They had printed out pictures of her from Facebook and said that they knew what she looked like,” Shishido said.Unlike Twitter, in which messages are public information, Facebook is usually private, available only to friends and members of shared networks. The fact that interrogators had access to Frazier’s images from the site shows the capabilities the government already has to monitor information online.
Government expansion of communications surveillance is nothing new. The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, passed in 1994, gave the FBI the ability to mandate communications companies to wiretap digital phones.
Now, federal officials claim that they simply want to expand already existing surveillance powers to the Internet, which was not covered under the original bill.
“The way we communicate has changed dramatically since 1994, but
telecommunications law has not kept up," FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni told The Times. “This gap between reality and the law has created a significant national security and public safety problem.”
However, many civil liberties activists are concerned that the proposed legislation could threaten a free and open Internet. On September 27, in a PBS debate over the proposed legislation, Kevin Bankston, president of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said the need for the bill is greatly exaggerated by the government. “[It’s] a drastic and costly anti-privacy, anti-security, and anti-innovation solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”