THE IRS MAY BE WEB SNOOPING ON YOU

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) (www.eff.org) is a donor-funded nonprofit organization that works to defend free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer digital rights.  Recently, EFF obtained a 2009 IRS training course manual that offers insight into how IRS views various internet resources.  The document was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in a request filed by EFF in cooperation with UC Berkeley Samuelson Clinic. Marcia Hoffmann discussed the manual in her March 16, 2010 article, “EFF Posts Documents Detailing Law Enforcement Collection of Data from Social Media Sites.”

The good news is that the IRS training materials explicitly prohibit its agents from setting up phony social networking accounts to dupe taxpayers into providing information about their activities.  The course partial content includes:

  • Guidance on using internet tools with “dos and don’ts”
  • Search techniques showing how to locate taxpayer information.

Some suggested dos from the course:

  • Agents are encouraged to search the web using a taxpayer’s name.
  • Unrestricted websites not requiring a log in are fair game.
  • Searches of databases or websites are not third-party contacts for Section 7602(c) 9. Reg. 301.7602-2(c) (2) (B). Refers to IRM 11.3.21.8 regarding disclosure of taxpayer information in web searches.
  • IRS agents may access restricted websites to gather taxpayer information
  • IRS may issue a summons to a third-party registrar that issued the domain name taxpayer is using if taxpayer will not supply information.
  • Agents may conduct searches to determine taxpayer’s e-commerce activities
  • Agents may find websites linked to the taxpayer’s website that may be related.

Some definite don’ts:

  • Agents may not register as friends of a taxpayer on Facebook or other social networking sites with their own identity or assumed identity.
  • Agents may not without a proper business purpose browse photos on a restricted or blocked website.
  • Agents may not gain access to a members only website.

EXAMPLE IN MANUAL

One hypothetical in the manual is cited by Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org) in a June 2012 cover article “Facebook & Your Privacy.” The manual hypo involves a comedian who in Seinfeld fashion posts a video on a social network site to promote himself. The manual instructs that agents issue summons to prior performance venues to determine how much the comedian was paid and where the funds were deposited; and, use future performance information to find out where he will be performing for use in serving a levy on pay or summons for needed financial information.

IRS is becoming more active in using web resources in its investigative efforts.  With reports of law enforcement planning to use more drones to keep track of citizens in jurisdictions, one wonders how long before IRS will have drones following us around to monitor our work and shopping routines?

For a sardonic look at these snooping phenomena, see parody song lyrics, “Getting to Know You at IRS,” and “Drone Spying,” at my other blog www.taxfoolery.com.

 © 2012 by Robert S. Steinberg, Esquire
All rights reserved

This entry was posted in AUDITS, POLICY, TAX and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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