Lawmakers worried about possible 'chilling effect' of DHS social monitoring

Lawmakers pressed for details about privacy safeguards while questioning Homeland Security Department officials at a hearing Feb. 16 about DHS’ ongoing collection and analysis of information from public social media websites.

“This is a delicate and difficult area we have to continue to explore,” Rep. Patrick Meehan, (R-Penn), chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said at the hearing. “It has the potential of creating chilling effect so that someone who is concerned would be more reluctant to write a letter or post on a blog."

Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer for DHS, told the panel that the department monitors specific approved social media websites around the clock in its operations center for situational awareness of breaking news and events related to security. The information is corroborated and written up into reports that are distributed to state and local agencies.

The department has established privacy policies, protocols and review processes, and works within all privacy laws and constitutional protections of civil rights and freedom of speech, Callahan said. It has rules against collecting personally-identifiable information, with certain exceptions, she added.

Information is collected “based on the ‘what?’ and not on the ‘who?’” Callahan said. The emphasis is on obtaining direct reports about  what happened in an incident, rather than identifying who provided the observation, she added, and no names or personal identification is collected except under limited conditions, such as for public officials and journalists. Those names are taken only for the purpose of confirming the information reported, she added.

In addition, she said DHS officials, under appropriate law enforcement authorities, use social media for investigations. The department also utilizes social media for communications and outreach to the public.

Callahan, along with Richard Chavez, director of the office of operations, coordination and planning at DHS, were questioned about a statement from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) concerning the monitoring practices that was submitted to the subcommittee members.

For one, EPIC said it filed a Freedom of Information Request for information about the monitoring in April 2011. When no response was received, it filed a lawsuit in December 2011. DHS responded by providing 285 pages of documents, EPIC said.

Callahan apologized for how that FOIA request was handled, saying it was “not acceptable,” adding that she was investigating the matter.

EPIC also said one of the DHS documents indicated a policy of capturing public reaction to major government policies. “These documents clearly show an agency program that aims to document legitimate online dissent and criticism. The agency has not established any legal basis for this program,” EPIC said in the statement.

Callahan said that DHS document cited by EPIC was from February 2010, and it was rejected and never put into operation. “The only place it exists is in my files,” she said.

Lawmakers also questioned Callahan and Chavez about the department’s $11 million contract with General Dynamics Corp. that put contractors to work monitoring social media websites on behalf of DHS. The contract has been in place for at least two years, Chavez said at the hearing.

The contract employees were given instruction about how to work within DHS’ privacy protocols, and the workers’ activity is regularly monitored, Chavez said. The workers search the social media websites using an approved list of keywords, such as “disaster” and “tornado,” to determine where major incidents might be occurring, he said.

Meehan said the concerns being raised are not primarily about disasters, but rather about any monitoring that might target individuals for making negative statements about the government, or for other political reasons.

DHS needs to ensure that “the United States will not be Big Brother,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, adding that she was “deeply troubled” by recent anecdotal reports on the monitoring.

Ginger McCall, staff counsel for EPIC, said afterward that it was "overall a good hearing. Congress displayed strong understanding of the civil liberties and legal issues associated with [the] DHS program."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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