This morning the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence will hold a hearing entitled “DHS Monitoring of Social Networking and Media: Enhancing Intelligence Gathering and Ensuring Privacy.” The hearing comes on the heels of several revelations about the government’s increasing surveillance of such sites as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs (including Homeland Security Watch).
DHS has been engaged in monitoring social media sites since at least 2010 to provide situational awareness and strengthen its common operating picture. The effort is run through the Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS), National Operations Center (NOC), and is entitled “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness (Initiative).” Last month, the DHS Privacy Office issued a Privacy Impact Assessment for the initiative, which can be found here.
DHS apparently uses social media monitoring to assist it with responses to major disasters (e.g. Haiti earthquake) and major events (e.g. border security around the 2010 Winter Olympics). It also uses its Initiative to monitor comments about the agency and the government, including comments that were critical of DHS and the government more broadly.
The FBI also has jumped on the social media monitoring bandwagon, issuing a Request for Information, which has a due date of February 20th for “conducting market research to determine the capabilities of the IT industry to provide a social media application.” Among the tasks it wants help with are search capabilities, automated filtering, mapping, and the like which would help analysts analyze social media to provide warning and detection capabilities, as well as geospatially locate bad actors. They would also help analysts predict activities, so as to provide proper response capability.
Other agencies who have dabbled in the social media monitoring space include the Federal Reserve, the Departments of Defense and State, and the Director of National Intelligence. We can expect other agencies to come forward with an interest in entering this realm (or acknowledging their existing plans).
There are good reasons for government agencies to want to monitor social media. First of all, it can assist law enforcement and homeland security entities with crisis management, especially in determining where assistance is needed. For example, with D.C.’s earthquake last year, cell service was sketchy as networks were overwhelmed. Twitter and Facebook messages on what people were seeing and experiencing thrived. There is a predictive value in using social media monitoring tools to gather information that analysts can then take to predict future events. Lastly, in the reputation management space, agencies can, what some privacy groups fear, use monitoring to track what people are saying about them. Why would an agency want to do so? Misinformation abounds on the Internet and in social media (I think I read that on a blog somewhere). Agencies having the capability to counter that misinformation is critical.
Also, an important fact to remember in the social media monitoring space, is that, at least from what has been made public, agencies are monitoring those spaces that are “open” to the public and others. How is that different than government officials attending public rallies or events to hear what is being said? If agencies are crossing into monitoring tweets or Facebook pages that are protected, that raises a different set of legal and Constitutional issues. But my understanding is that is not the case — the material is open source.
Why its understandable that individuals would be fearful of agencies gathering intelligence on how they exercise their free speech rights, the age of social media has also changed the rules of engagement in some ways. While we should protect privacy, we should not unnecessarily hamper our government’s ability to look at information that our voyeuristic neighbor could just as easily obtain through a few clicks and searches.