DHS monitoring of social media worries civil liberties advocates

January 13, 2012

Civil liberties advocates are raising concerns that the Department of Homeland Security’s three-year-old practice of monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter could extend to tracking public reaction to news events and reports that “reflect adversely” on the U.S. government.

The activists, who obtained DHS documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, say one document in particular, a February 2010 analyst handbook, touts as a good example of “capturing public reaction” the monitoring of Facebook and other sites for public sentiment about the possible transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a Michigan prison.

A senior DHS official said 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 explosion of digital media, DHS has joined other intelligence and law enforcement agencies in monitoring blogs and social media, which is seen as a valuable tool in anticipating trends and threats that affect homeland security, such as flu pandemics or a bomb plot.

But monitoring for “positive and negative reports” on U.S. agencies falls outside 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.”

But 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.

General Dynamics referred a request for comment to the department.

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.

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