A major tussle is emerging in the debate over how government agencies can gather and use information posted publicly on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other agencies contend that social media monitoring is a vital part of their efforts to keep abreast of events that that could pose threats to national security and public safety.
Privacy advocates maintain that unfettered social media monitoring by the government will chill free speech and intrude upon privacy and civil rights.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and other groups have noted that that at least some of the information harvested from social media sites by some government agencies has little to do with public safety goals.
Several lawmakers today expressed similar concerns at a U.S. House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence hearing called to examine a social media monitoring initiative launched by the DHS two years ago.
DHS documents released in response to an EPIC inquiry show that the agency hired General Dynamics to monitor numerous blogs, news and social media sites.
Under an $11 million contract, General Dynamics has been tasked to, among other things, collect information that reflects adversely on the government and agencies such as the DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the CIA.
Lawmakers today sharply questioned the rationale behind such information gathering and demanded to know how it served either national security or public safety goals.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), a ranking member of the subcommittee, told DHS chief privacy officer Mary Callahan that the information the agency is gathering to build files on journalists, bloggers and Internet activists is "irrelevant."
Speir contended that the information is not needed for public safety purposes -- and and asked that the DHS to stop collecting it.
For example, she cited a document which appeared to show that the DHS collected and analyzed community responses to a controversial proposal to transfer Guantanamo prison detainees to a local prison in Standish, Mich.
"Capturing public reaction to major government proposals is not something you should be doing, Speier said. "This is not a political operation."
Subcommittee chair Rep. Patrick Meehan, (R-PA), demanded to know who at DHS was responsible for ensuring that the social media monitoring was not intrusive.
"Who is making the protections against circumstances under which government is playing a role in not just analyzing but filtering back, recording and reporting about things that people in the community have said about governmental activity," Meehan asked.
Callahan insisted that the social media monitoring activities of the DHS focus only on breaking news and events, not on specific individuals. The DHS uses specific and generic keywords such as 'disaster', 'flood' and 'tornado' to search for information on social media sites, she said.
She contended that the concerns about monitoring social networks for examples of public dissent and for public attitudes about government agencies and proposals are misplaced and based on outdated documents.
"The standard by which we operate is not the 'who,' but the 'what,'" she said. Callahan said the only instances in which the DHS might collect personally identifiable information via its social media monitoring is when it involves public figures or life or death circumstances.
The FBI, which recently began scouting for a social media monitoring tool, also has said that it doesn't target specific individuals or organizations in its searchers.
The FBI has maintained that it aims to enhance situational awareness by tapping the information on social media networks.
Both the DHS and FBI have said they are only collecting publicly available information, though it's doubtful whether such assurances will assuage privacy and rights groups.
In a statement that was quoted several times by lawmakers at today's hearing, EPIC maintained that there is no legal basis for DHS' monitoring and that it in fact violates the federal Privacy Act.
"Law enforcement agency monitoring of online criticism and dissent chills legitimate criticism of the government, and implicates the First Amendment," the privacy group said.
EPIC also called for the DHS to immediately suspend monitoring for political and journalistic activity that may reflect badly on the government. It called for more controls and oversight and said that the DHS, FBI and other agencies involved should be required to submit annual reports to Congress detailing their social media monitoring activities.
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.