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Privacy tussle brews over social media monitoring

Monitoring of sites like Facebook, Twitter, others prompts calls for oversight

February 16, 2012 04:01 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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