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Lawmakers Question DHS Monitoring of Social Media

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's practice of monitoring social media services could lead to abuse and could discourage U.S. residents from speaking out against the government, several lawmakers said Thursday.

Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee's intelligence subcommittee questioned a recently revealed DHS contract for General Dynamics to monitor media stories that reflect adversely on DHS or the U.S. government.

Lawmakers are "deeply troubled" by the contract, which also allows General Dynamics to monitor traditional and social media for public views on major government proposals, Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said during a hearing.

DHS "is not a political operation," she said. "It should not be a political operation."

The agency's monitoring of social media could suppress "legitimate protest," added Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican. DHS and other U.S. agencies should be able to use social media to investigate crime or terrorism, he said, but agencies shouldn't collect personal information from social networking sites for most other uses.

"My guess is that the average American has no problem with other private individuals reading their commentary in online writings and postings in open forums, but may feel a bit of unease knowing the federal government may be doing the same thing," he said.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details about the program last April. After DHS did not provide information, EPIC filed a lawsuit, and the agency released 285 pages to the privacy group in January.

Two representatives of DHS defended the program, saying it's much more limited in scope than what lawmakers fear. DHS analysts do use information from social media to compile threat reports, but in most cases, the reports are focused on natural disasters, said Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer at DHS. Social media reports on tornadoes, floods and other disasters can provide valuable information to emergency response agencies, she said.

In most cases, DHS does not include the names of the social media users in threat reports that are distributed within DHS and to other agencies, Callahan said. In some cases, the threat reports include the name and outlet of a journalist or blogger covering a disaster as a way to establish credibility, she said.

"There's a great deal of personal information that, although publicly available, is not necessary for the department to see or use," she said.

DHS has monitored social media to assess its own performance in the eyes of the public, said Richard Chávez, director of the DHS Office of Operations Coordination and Planning. For example, social media might tell DHS officials when there are long lines at Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints at airports, and Chávez's group can forward those reports to the appropriate supervisors, he said.

Callahan and Chávez both said the General Dynamics contract is not being used to monitor citizen dissent or reaction to government proposals. The information provided to EPIC used an example of how the program could potentially monitor social media to gauge the reaction of an area's residents to moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to a local prison, but DHS has not used the program in that way, they said.

Still, some subcommittee members called on DHS to examine whether the monitoring program is needed. "The public must be confident that interacting with DHS, a website, a blog or Facebook will not result in surveillance or a compromise of constitutionally protected rights," said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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