DHS Social Media Monitoring Hearing Could Be First of Many

The House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing yesterday on “DHS Monitoring of Social Networking and Media: Enhancing Intelligence Gathering and Ensuring Privacy.”  The hearing was aimed at providing insight into how exactly DHS is utilizing this resource for protecting national security, with specific attention paid to the department’s contract with General Dynamics.

Addressing  the subcommittee were Mary Ellen Callahan, DHS’s Chief Privacy Officer, and Richard Chavez, Director of DHS’s Office of Operations Coordination and Planning.

Rep. Meehan (R-PA) began his remarks by noting the importance of intelligence gathering to protecting citizens from harm, but noted that your friends reading your Facebook posts is different than DHS reading them. He stressed the needs to balance privacy interests with the benefits that we accrue from this information collection. He also highlighted the fact that the DHS Privacy Officer is the “first statutorily mandated privacy officer in any federal agency.”

Callahan stated that DHS has three uses of social media: 1) for external communications and public outreach; 2) enhancing situational awareness of government agencies; and 3) where appropriate authorities exist, for law enforcement and investigative purposes . She outlined various measures that have been implemented to safeguard individual privacy, including a “holistic set of privacy protections” that ere incorporated into the June 2010 document “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative” PIA. She summarized DHS’s privacy policies thusly: “if you can’t do it offline, you can’t do it online.”

Even before the questioning began, it was apparent that a chief concern of the committee members was the chilling effect this monitoring might have on First Amendment protections for free speech, as well as the grave privacy implications of these activities. The common theme from both Callahan and Chavez in this regard was that DHS is more interested in the “what” rather than the “who” behind social media information, and that there are robust privacy protections and review mechanisms in place to ensure the monitoring and use of that information does not have that feared chilling  effect or threaten individuals’ privacy.

Rep. Speier was not moved by the assurances given by the witnesses, admonishing DHS for provisions in its contract with General Dynamics which allowed for the collection of personally identifiable information in some circumstances, including on reporters and news anchors. While the exception states that such collection is for the purposes of enhancing the credibility of the specific media reports, Rep. Speier  nonetheless declared the policy “outrageous.” She said that the monitoring of public reactions to major government proposals was “not something [DHS] should be doing,” and also endorsed the recommendations made by EPIC, namely that  DHS 1) cease collecting info on journalist activities; 2) suspend social media / network monitoring until safeguards in place; and 3) provide annual report setting out legal standards for such collection.

When the discussion turned to how extensively social networking sites were being monitored, there was some confusion among the witnesses and committee members. Rep. Meehan wanted to know who was making the decisions as to what subjects to monitor, and Chavez’s answer seemed to be simply that the monitoring is determined based on a set of predetermined keywords, for example “disaster,” “tornado,” and “flood.” Chavez also said that DHS has guidelines in place for sites that monitors can look at, which are submitted to the privacy office for approval. Nevertheless, privacy concerns were raised again and again by committee members.

Rep. Meehan closed the hearing by noting that it was only the beginning of an important discussion., and that it was crucial to strike a balance between protecting the nation and protecting individual rights. It is likely this will be the first of several hearings on this subject.

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