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8 Apr, 2013 23:00

IRS to monitor Facebook, Twitter for tax cheats

IRS to monitor Facebook, Twitter for tax cheats

Is the IRS about to get too close for comfort? New reports brought to light by one privacy and data security expert suggest that this tax filing season the Internal Revenue Service may be monitoring social media for any clues of tax cheats.

According to Kristen Mathews, a partner attorney at law firm Proskauer Rose LLP who specializes in privacy and data security, there are reports that the IRS will be checking into individual Facebook and Twitter accounts for improprieties.

Though the agency says that it will only conduct such monitoring if a tax form raises a red flag, it is somewhat unclear to what extent it will be capable of delving into social media accounts.

Social media tools used by marketing companies, for example, are capable of conducting widespread searches for certain keywords, and though they can often take advantage of small “loopholes” in Facebook privacy settings, they are generally limited to publicly divulged information.

Data mining is now widespread on social media, as companies often use Twitter buzz and comments left on Facebook to measure consumers’ thoughts on particular products, or to get ahead of a potential public relations issue.

In regards to government monitoring of social media, there are already plenty of instances where information collected through both Twitter and Facebook has been used to file criminal charges against individuals. Just last week, New York officials announced the indictment of 63 East Harlem gang members, whose movements were tracked with the help of clues they left behind on their social media accounts.

According to Proskauer's comments to a local Fox affiliate, there may be good reason to take care with what you say in regards to tax information via social media channels.

So far, most concerns regarding the government’s surveillance of social media have been focused on the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have filed Freedom of Information Act requests and even gone to court to acquire more details on just what kind of data the government is looking for, and whether their monitoring tools could exceed privacy settings.

Only a few months ago, The Guardian published information about one highly invasive tool called “Riot” being developed by Raytheon, one of America's largest defense contractors, which could not only mine information from social networking websites, but even predict behavior based on data. Riot is allegedly able to extract data embedded on photographs shared via social media, for example, to provide geographic information to track an individual’s actual movements, and collect an “entire snapshot of a person's life” in short order.

Though there’s no evidence that an agency such as the IRS would resort to such a powerful degree of monitoring, the fact that government contractors are already working on such tools seems to make transparency a key measure of intent.

Only last year, it was revealed that the DHS had been creating accounts on blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to gather data on “suspect terms” posted by Americans. At the time, the agency only said that it was in the process of developing guidelines for how to gather information from social media while still protecting privacy, though it made it fairly clear that it considered such monitoring fair game.