Homeland Security Spying On Your Social Media? More Hype Than News

Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere were on fire yesterday, with the news that Homeland Security Is Monitoring The Drudge Report, The New York Times, and other various websites. The headline sparked burning blog posts all across the web, some bordering on hysterics. Type “Homeland Security” and “Drudge” into Google and perform a search within the last twenty four hours, and you’ll find 56,700 results at this writing.

The story was borne out of an upcoming privacy compliance review from the Department of Homeland Security regarding one of the agency’s initiatives that entails monitoring “publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites, and message boards.” There’s just one important detail missing here: the program was actually implemented in January of 2010.

The Volokh Conspiracy, a well-known group blog of law professors, puts the hype in check:

Matt Drudge and The Atlantic are hyperventilating, and Mark Hosenball of Reuters is bragging, about what The Atlantic calls an “exclusive” report that DHS “routinely monitors dozens of popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks and news and gossip sites including the Huffington Post and Drudge Report.”

There are just two problems with this exclusive news report.

It isn’t news and it isn’t exclusive.

Readers of this blog could have learned exactly the same thing in one of my posts from, uh, February of 2010.

Here’s what I said two years ago:

With his usual nudge-and-wink, Matt Drudge invites us to be dismayed that “BIG SIS” — his moniker for Janet Napolitano — is “Monitoring Web Sites for Terror and Disaster Info.” Drudge links to a story saying that DHS will be monitoring social media like Twitter, as well as websites like Drudge, to keep abreast of events during the Winter Olympics. The source of the story is a twelve-page “Privacy Impact Assessment” issued by DHS.

This isn’t the first Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on DHS’s use of social media. A few weeks earlier, DHS wrote a similar assessment of using social media during Haitian rescue operations.

I am indeed dismayed, but not for Drudge’s reasons. True, it’s disappointing that neither the Volokh Conspiracy nor www.skatingonstilts.com is deemed worthy of government monitoring. But what’s really dismaying is that DHS and its Privacy Office felt obliged to labor over two separate and painfully obvious privacy assessments just to do things that you and I would do by simply firing up our browsers.

That’s it. The story is that people at DHS are, gasp, browsing the Internet. As I said then, there’s no scandal, other than the electrons wasted by DHS agonizing over the privacy implications of browsing public Internet sources to find out what’s happening in the world.

The program is referred to as the Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative (pdf), and it was first implemented to monitor activity and news during events like those mentioned above.

Some seem especially concerned about the portion of the initiative that pertains to actually retaining personally identifiable information.

The DHS Privacy Office (PRIV) and OPS/NOC decided to further broaden the program’s capability to collect additional information, including limited instances of personally identifiable information (PII). As such, a Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) Update5 and new DHS/OPS-004 – Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative System of Records Notice (SORN)6 were issued on January 6, 2011 and February 1, 2011 respectively and are the basis for this Privacy Compliance Review (PCR).

But upon close inspection of “personally identifiable information,” the activity is really no different from what you or I might do to gather our own news interests.

According to the compliance review, the collection of such information is limited to certain categories of individuals. The Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS)/National Operations Center (NOC) “is permitted to collect personally identifiable information on the following categories of individuals when it lends credibility to the report or facilitates coordination with federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, foreign, or international government partners” and subject to the following requirements:


  1. U.S. and foreign individuals in extremis situations involving potential life or death circumstances;
  2. senior U.S. and foreign government officials who make public statements or provide public updates;
  3. U.S. and foreign government spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;
  4. U.S. and foreign private sector officials and spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;
  5. names of anchors, newscasters, or on-scene reporters who are known or identified as reporters in their post or article or who use traditional and/or social media in real time to keep their audience situationally aware and informed;
  6. current and former public officials who are victims of incidents or activities related to Homeland Security; and
  7. terrorists, drug cartel leaders, or other persons known to have been involved in major crimes of Homeland Security interest. PII inadvertently or incidentally collected outside the scope of these discrete set of categories of individuals shall be redacted immediately before further use and sharing.

The majority of the personally identifiable information refers to the collection of names of journalists and public speakers for the purpose of following those sources for news and other information. The remainder addresses public information about individuals in life or death circumstances in or outside of the U.S., and of those associated with criminal activity of interest to DHS.

In other words, it’s not much different than creating your own Drudge Report, or a list of bookmarks in your browser for your favorite blogs and news sites, or RSS feeds, or Twitter lists. It just sounds scary because, well … it’s the government. And while it’s healthy to be skeptical of government, people – especially journalists – must practice restraint and resist the urge to whip others into a frenzy over what amounts to browsing news stories to stay abreast of current events and activities.

There’s certainly no lack of overreaching policies in the DHS to be shrieking about, which always deserve the largest decibel of volume possible. For now, your Tweets and blogs aren’t being “spied” upon. Not yet, anyway …

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