FBI seeks developers for app to track suspicious social media posts, sparking privacy concerns

The FBI is getting in on the law enforcement app game on the heels of a controversial data mining project by the Homeland Security Department.

Documents recently posted online seek industry input to develop the equivalent of a web alert system.

"I think what you are looking at is a Google news feed specifically targeted for law enforcement, focusing on their specific needs," Frank Ciluffo, who leads George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, told Fox News."We're on our mobile phones and we're on our various iPhones, BlackBerrys and the like that transmits data that locates individuals."

The 12-page document, called "FBI Social Media Application," provides a detailed picture of the bureau's specifications. The program must have the ability "to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence ... to quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats."

Ciluffo, who was also a former adviser in the George W. Bush White House, said tracking social media is the tip of the spear for national security investigations and it raises privacy questions, over whether law enforcement officers are allowed to monitor public social media posts.

“If you’re in law enforcement's shoes, and certainly if you've got a counterterrorism organization, I wouldn't see why they should feel that anyone else can monitor but they can't,” he said.

Ciluffo said technology is running way of ahead, and the government is about to meet the new social network. “We’ve got to figure what is the right balance between privacy and security. And I'm not sure we, as a country, have addressed that question. When you're dealing with known foreign terrorist organizations and sympathizers and known terrorists, to me that's a cut-and-dry kind of case.”

According to the ACLU, who reviewed the FBI documents for Fox News, information pulled from sites like Facebook, Twitter and blogs could be cross referenced with other databases to identify potential threats. Mike German, a former FBI agent who runs the National Security section of the civil liberties group, says the data could be used to increase video surveillance in a neighborhood. German argues fundamental issues are not being addressed.

“Even where you're talking about published information, information people intentionally put out there on the Internet, we still have a right not to have that monitored by the government. The government really doesn't have any interest in tracking someone's Twitter account if they're not doing something wrong or suspected of doing something wrong.”

And German says the information can lead, in some cases, to questioning by federal officers, and getting rid of the “cloud of suspicion” can become virtually impossible. “Part of what we want to protect is the freedom to speak your mind, to criticize government policies without fear that the government will take it the wrong way and start treating you as if you're a threat.”

The FBI told Fox News in a statement that the project was in the research stage, and if it goes ahead, it “will not focus on specific persons or protected groups, but on words that relate to “events” and “crisis” and activities constituting violations of federal criminal law or threats to national security. Examples of these words will include lockdown, bomb, suspicious package, white powder, active shoot, school lock down, etc.”

Fox News asked Facebook and Twitter for comment in an effort to learn whether they would support the FBI program or opt out. Facebook thanked Fox News for the opportunity but had nothing to add. Twitter did not immediately respond.

Fox News' Shayla Bezdrob contributed to this report.

Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" was published last year by Crown.