(MintPress)- It’s no Orwellian secret America: Big Brother is watching you. Especially what you’re doing on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sights.
Lawmakers are looking into homeland security’s monitoring of social media sites, in a report unearthed Thursday by a civil liberties group. And moreover, taxpayers have footed an $11 million bill paid to a private contractor charged with analyzing online comments that allegedly “reflect adversely” on the federal government.
DHS in the hot seat
Earlier this week in Washington, at a hearing attended by members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence titled “DHS Monitoring of Social Networking and Media: Enhancing Intelligence Gathering and Ensuring Privacy”, met to discuss tactics that are used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to monitor networking and social media. At the hearing, both Democrats and Republicans touted a report by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) while questioning the chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security, Mary Ellen Callahan.
The report from EPIC, totaling almost 3,000 pages in length, divulges documents it obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which cover DHS’ online monitoring activities. DHS paid $11 million to General Dynamics, a private firm, in order to scour the Internet in search of comments on DHS or other areas of the federal government.
What Big Brother is looking for
Specifically, General Dynamics combed through millions of Facebook and Twitter posts and comment sections of The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Drudge, Wired and other media outlets.
The group was looking for public reactions to government manuevers, in an effort to “capture public reaction to major government proposals” by DHS as well as “positive and negative reports” on FEMA, the CIA and other federal agencies.
Committee Chairman Patrick Meehan (R-PA) said that while he supports the government collecting information available on the web to thwart terrorist attacks, and supports intelligence collections “within the rules of the law”, he had questions about the DHS’ directive, stating, “In my view, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating private citizens’ comments could have a chilling effect on individual privacy rights and people’s freedom of speech and dissent against their government.”
Meehan also said he believed that if an individual willingly and publicly uses Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section of a newspaper website, this constituted a forfeiture of their right to privacy, however, “other private individuals reading public Facebook status updates or Twitter feeds is different than the Department of Homeland Security reading them, analyzing them, and possibly disseminating them. My worry—and the worry of many Americans—is what else the government may be doing with the information collected. What safeguards are in place to ensure the online activity of innocent Americans is not being monitored and stored by their government?” he asked at the hearing.
Democratic member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) echoed Meehan’s statements, noting “The public must be confident that interacting with DHS on a website, blog or Facebook will not result in surveillance or the compromise of constitutionally protected rights.”
One example of the way in which DHS was using information garnered through surveying social media was a case in which DHS used Facebook, Twitter, three different blogs, and reader comments in newspapers to capture resident’s reactions to a possible plan to bring Guantanamo detainees from Cuba to a local prison in Standish, Michigan.
When news of that incident broke last month, an article in the Washington Post quoted a senior DHS official as saying the department does not monitor dissent or gather reports tracking citizens’ views, as such reporting would not be useful in the types of emergencies to which officials need to respond.
The same report noted that monitoring for “positive and negative reports” on U.S. agencies falls outside the department’s mission to “secure the nation,” according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had obtained a copy of a contract and related material describing DHS’s social media monitoring through its Freedom of Information Act suit.
In the news story, Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s open government program was quoted as saying, “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. 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.”
However, the DHS has another opinion on the matter, believing the monitoring to be merely an expansion of a program they were already utilizing to monitor traditional news media. Officials say the DHS is within its “statutory mission under the Homeland Security Act to maintain situational awareness about what’s happening in the country with respect to homeland security,” according to a report from Federal News Radio.
DHS officials argue that the program is legal is that it “doesn’t target individuals, and with some exceptions, it doesn’t collect personally identifiable information,” Callahan stated, further explaining that the DHS might use keyword searches to scan Twitter and Facebook to obtain details about breaking news it wants to monitor, or to find people complaining about the length of TSA security lines.
“The purpose is for our own operational purposes,” she said in the report. “It’s for our own operational standards. We don’t care who’s standing in line, but if indeed there is a long line at TSA, we don’t care who’s in the long line. If someone tweets and says there’s a long line, we want to convey that to TSA. It’s part of the operation awareness that the National Operations Center does.”
The information the DHS collects via social media is utilized to compile daily reports that it provides to other law enforcement agencies even down to the local level for “situational awareness purposes, without naming individuals.”
Still, critics like EPIC say media monitoring activity such as this achieves no public safety goals. “They are completely out of bounds here. “The idea that the government is constantly peering over your shoulder and listening to what you are saying creates a very chilling effect to legitimate dissent,” McCall said in an interview with Computerworld last moth.