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The House Committee on Homeland Security's subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence this morning held a hearing on DHS' recently revealed social network monitoring program, officially called the "Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative System of Records." The program collects information available on social media, shares it with other government agencies (including those in other countries) and private companies, and retains it for five years.
Testifying on behalf of DHS was Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan and Director of the DHS Office of Operations and Planning Richard Chávez. Notably absent at the hearing was any representative from a civil liberties organization, or a rep from the private company DHS has contracted to actually execute its social media spying operation, General Dynamics. Those voices would have been useful, it turns out, particularly given that the committee was partially spurred to action by a FOIA lawsuit against DHS, filed by a civil liberties group, that revealed improper spying on speech.
Subcommittee chairman Patrick Meehan (PA) opened the line of questioning, after the DHS representatives gave very bland and largely meaningless statements. He wanted to know what DHS was doing to ensure that the agency's social media spying didn't chill free speech or criticism of the government.
Unfortunately, he didn't get any good answers. From the transcript, Meehan began:
We are talking about monitoring online information in blogs, in websites, in message boards. Some of these have sort of the indicia of quasi privacy communities, so to speak. Help us understand what you are doing to assure that individual communication is not leading to individuals being identified by the government, and what you are doing to assure that we are not creating a chilling effect so that somebody in the community who is concerned about a particular issue will be more reluctant to write a letter to the editor, to post something on a blog.We're all very concerned…about what looks as if it is a directive within the contract you have with a private contractor who is employed to help you gather information: identifying media reports that reflect adversely on the US government…So in effect we are asking somebody to go out and let us know what people are saying that's negative about us. This appears to be what was asked for in the contract with General Dynamics. So I'd like you to tell me what we are doing to assure that private commentary is not being misused, and what we can do to assure that the activities of monitoring are not going to create some kind of chilling effect on individuals willingness and readiness not only to comment, but frankly, to make comments which may be critical of the government.
Q: Who is in charge? A: Um…
We know about the disasters, I don't think we are worried about the disasters. What we are worried about is in individual circumstances where there may be issues out there…And I point back again to the Michigan circumstance where there was a controversial decision by the government and DHS played a role in assessing community response to that incident. That wasn't a natural disaster, that was an incident that was created by the government, and the government was then monitoring the community response. Who's making the protections against circumstances under which the government is playing a role in not just analyzing but filtering back, recording and reporting about things that people in the community have said about governmental activity?
"I am deeply troubled"
I'm suggesting to you that it is irrelevant, you do not need it, and you should suspend that part of the contract. This is not a political operation. This should not be a political operation. And you should not be collecting public opinion information. EPIC makes three recommendations…and I for one wholeheartedly agree with their recommendations.
They [General Dynamics] are skilled technicians in surfing the web.