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Exactly what is Homeland Security watching for on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube?

Department of Homeland Security on congressional hot-seat over social media website monitoring

By , Network World
February 16, 2012 01:13 PM ET
Mary Callahan

Network World - The idea that any number of federal institutions are watching your every move on social networks like Facebook, Twitter is unnerving at best. The Department of Homeland Security is one of those agencies and today it testified before a House subcommittee to define and defend its role in social media monitoring.

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence subcommittee's chairman, opened the hearing by saying it was reported that DHS had instituted a program to produce short reports about threats and hazards.

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"However, in something that may cross the line, these reports also revealed that DHS had tasked analysts with collecting intelligence on media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government and the Department of Homeland Security. In one example, DHS used multiple social networking tools — including Facebook, Twitter, three different blogs, and reader comments in newspapers to capture resident's reactions to a possible plan to bring Guantanamo detainees to a local prison in Standish, Mich.

In my view, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating private citizens' comments could have a chilling effect on individual privacy rights and people's freedom of speech and dissent against their government," Meehan stated.

Meehan went on to say if an individual willingly and publicly uses Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section of a newspaper website, they, in effect, forfeit their right to any expectation of privacy. "However, other private individuals reading public Facebook status updates or Twitter feeds is different than the Department of Homeland Security reading them, analyzing them, and possibly disseminating them. My worry — and the worry of many Americans — is what else the government may be doing with the information collected. What safeguards are in place to ensure the online activity of innocent Americans is not being monitored and stored by their government?" Meehan asked.

In response, DHS officials said the agency currently has a presence on many of the major social networking platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In addition, FEMA launched a FEMA app for smartphones that contains preparedness information for different types of disasters. Similarly, the Transportation Security Administration has MyTSA Mobile Application, which enables the traveling public access to relevant TSA travel information, such as types of items that may be carried through TSA security checkpoints, or estimated wait times, DHS stated.

Mary Ellen Callahan, DHS chief privacy officer, told the hearing that it may be appropriate for the government, including DHS, to use social media for a variety of reasons.

"DHS recognizes that the use of social media by government actors must occur with appropriate privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections; whether DHS is disclosing its information and press releases via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, reviewing news feeds for situational awareness, or researching identified, discrete targets for legitimate investigatory purposes," she said.

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