Civil Liberties Advocates Concerned About Dept. of Homeland Security Monitoring Social Networking Sites

Civil liberties advocates are sounding alarms over the practice of the Department of Homeland Security monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. They say the DHS may begin tracking public reaction to news events and reports that “reflect adversely” on the U.S. government.Documents obtained from the DHS through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit contained a February 2010 analyst handbook that touted a good example of “capturing public reaction” by monitoring Facebook and other sites for public sentiment about the possible transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a Michigan prison.

According to a senior DHS official the department does not monitor dissent or gather reports tracking citizens’ views. He said such reporting would not be useful in the types of emergencies to which officials need to respond. Officials also said that the analyst handbook is no longer in use and that the current version does not include the Guantanamo detainee reaction or similar examples.

With the rise of digital media, the DHS and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies have begun monitoring blogs and social media to anticipate trends and threats that affect homeland security, such as flu pandemics or terrorist plots.

Monitoring for “positive and negative reports” on U.S. agencies is not part of the department’s mission to “secure the nation,” said the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which obtained a copy of a contract and related material describing DHS’s social media monitoring through its FOIA suit.

According to the documents, the department’s Office of Operations Coordination and Planning awarded a contract in 2010 to Fairfax-based General Dynamics’ Advanced Information Systems. The company’s task is to provide media and social media monitoring support to Homeland Security’s National Operations Center (NOC) on a “24/7/365 basis” to enhance DHS’s “situational awareness, fusion and analysis and decision support” to senior leaders.

“The language in the documents makes it quite clear that they are looking for media reports that are critical of the agency and the U.S. government more broadly,” said Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s open government program. “This is entirely outside of the bounds of the agency’s statutory duties, and it could have a substantial chilling effect on legitimate dissent and freedom of speech.”

John Cohen, a senior counterterrorism adviser to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said that in his three years on the job, during which he has received every social media summary the NOC has produced, he has never seen a report summarizing negative views of DHS or any other governmental agency. Such reports, he said, “would not be the type of reporting I would consider helpful” in forming an operational response to some event or emergency.

“What I generally get are reports regarding hazmat spills, natural disasters, suspicious packages and street closures, active shooter situations, bomb threats,” Cohen said. “That is the type of information being pulled off social media.”

There is one sense in which reports of “adverse” publicity might be useful, he said: for example, alerting senior officials to the arrest of an off-duty officer for discharging his weapon.

The $11.3 million General Dynamics contract began in 2010 with a four-year renewal option. It states that the firm should provide daily social network summaries, weekly data reports and a monthly status report.The work is being done for DHS’s Office of Operations Coordination and Planning.

A year ago, the department released a report describing privacy guidelines on its social media monitoring program. For instance, information that can identify an individual may be collected if it “lends credibility” to the report. Officials said that would generally be provided to operational officials responding to an emergency.


1 Comment

  1. They just gotta have their hands in all the pies. Not happy otherwise.

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