The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is engaging in media monitoring activity that achieves no public safety goals and will likely have a chilling effect on legitimate criticism of the agency, a leading privacy advocacy group warned Friday.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center's conclusion is based on an analysis of documents it received from the government this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The documents show that DHS has hired General Dynamics to monitor and summarize reports from numerous media outlets, blogs and social networking sites.
Computerworld is one of dozens of news media and blog sites that are being monitored by the DHS under a broad initiative aimed at improving the government's situational awareness. Others on the list include The New York Times, Wired, the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report.
The information gathered from such sites is intended to help the DHS' Office of Operations Coordination and Planning keep on top of potential threats and hazards to public safety, the DHS documents say.
According to the DHS, one of OPS' missions is to maintain real-time situational awareness by gathering, coordinating, and sharing information among federal, state and local law enforcement. The media and social network monitoring supports the activities of a broader Network Operations Center which issues advisories, alerts and bulletins relating to national security threats.
The problem is that some of the media and network monitoring appears to have little to do with furthering public safety, said Ginger McCall, director of EPIC's Open Government Project.
For instance, as part of its $11 million contract with the DHS, General Dynamics is supposed to collect reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. government, including the DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the CIA and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The company is expected to generate "reports on DHS, Components, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS" the documents show.
The DHS could not be reached for comment.
McCall pointed to DHS training materials obtained by EPIC that summarize reaction to news media reports about a proposal to bring Guantanamo detainees to a local prison in Standish, Mich. The report is based on comments made by local residents on Facebook, Twitter, three different blogs and reader comments on an unidentified media site.
The report concludes that residents on the whole were opposed to the plan. It included verbatim comments made by an unidentified Facebook user and a union representative at the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility.
It also included verbatim Facebook comments made by an unidentified individual running a Standish car dealership, which the report said was reflective of minority perspective on the issue.
It is unclear if that particular report was generated by General Dynamics, but it is held up as an example of the kind of reporting the DHS wants to emulate, McCall said. In each case, the comments in the DHS report are anonymous and appear designed only to highlight public opinion on both sides of the issue.
Even so, the fact that the DHS is engaged in monitoring and gathering such information could have a chilling effect on free speech, McCall said.
The documents "prove that the agency is looking specifically for media stories that are critical to DHS or the U.S. government," McCall said. "It is monitoring political dissent online," as part of its broader media monitoring activities.
The DHS is justified in gathering information that helps fulfill its mission to protect against terrorists and other domestic threats, McCall said. However, collecting information on public reaction to various developments should not be part of that mission.
"They are completely out of bounds here," McCall said. "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.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.