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Privacy group sues Army over surveillance of soldiers' blogs, Web sites

The EFF wants details on why the Army is watching the sites and blogs

By Todd R. Weiss
February 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A U.S. Army unit that monitors thousands of Web sites and soldiers' blogs looking for sensitive military information has been hit with a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) lawsuit by a San Francisco-based privacy group that wants to know more about the monitoring program.

In a lawsuit (download PDF) filed in U.S. District Court in Washington last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said that despite several requests for information from the Army unit, known as the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell (AWRAC), no answers have been provided.

Marcia Hofmann, a Washington-based staff attorney for the EFF, said the FoIA lawsuit is aimed at protecting free speech and privacy and helping soldiers and other Americans understand how and why Web sites and soldiers' blogs are being monitored. "The idea is to get more information on what the Army is doing," Hofmann said. "Some soldier bloggers choose not to blog because of concerns about what they can and can't say" online.

The EFF wants to know how AWRAC finds and monitors Web sites and blogs and how it asks people to remove information from them, she said. The EFF also wants to know what specific rules and protocols the unit uses to determine what information is sensitive and why, as well as whether blogs and Web sites of civilians are also being scrutinized, she said.

"This is a compelling question ... and the public should know more about it," Hofmann said.

In an announcement about the lawsuit last week, the EFF said that some bloggers have cut back on their posts or shut down their sites after being contacted by the AWRAC. "Soldiers should be free to blog their thoughts at this critical point in the national debate on the war in Iraq," Hofmann said. "If the Army is coloring or curtailing soldiers' published opinions, Americans need to know about that interference."

Hofmann acknowledged that the military "requires some level of secrecy," but added that "the public has a right to know if the Army is silencing soldiers' opinions as well."

Gordon Van Vleet, public affairs officer for the Army's Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Signal Command, which oversees AWRAC, said he could not directly comment on the EFF lawsuit but was able to respond to written questions about the unit.

AWRAC, which is part of the Army Office of Information Assurance and Compliance, "notifies webmasters and blog writers when they find documents, pictures and other items that may compromise security," according to the Army. "AWRAC reviews for information on public web sites which may provide an adversary with sensitive information that could put soldiers or family members in danger. AWRAC assesses the risk the information poses to the military and determines if the next step is to request the information be removed."

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