Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security were evasive about who ordered them to look for reports or comments that “reflect adversely on the U.S. government and the DHS.”
The hearing was prompted as a result of the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtaining 300 documents through a Freedom of Information Act request which detailed how DHS had hired an outside contractor, General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, to monitor social media outlets along with a list of websites, on a “24/7/365 basis,” in order to uncover “any media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government and the Department of Homeland Security.”
The list of websites the DHS requested be monitored for such content included the Drudge Report, Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, and GoogleBlogSearch, a service that allows millions of individual blogs to be searched for keywords.
EPIC submitted a statement to Subcommittee Hearing in which the privacy group demanded the Committee suspend the DHS program, arguing that “The DHS monitoring of social networks and media organizations is entirely without legal basis and threatens important free speech and expression rights.”
In his opening comments before the Subcommittee Hearing, titled DHS Monitoring of Social Networking and Media: Enhancing Intelligence Gathering and Ensuring Privacy, Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Patrick Meehan spoke of his concerns that “Collecting, analyzing, disseminating private citizens’ comments could have a chilling effect on individuals’ privacy rights and people’s freedom of speech and dissent against their government.”
Representative Jackie Speier said she was “deeply troubled” by the program, stating DHS “is not a political operation….It should not be a political operation.”
However, despite Meehan repeatedly pressing both DHS representatives Mary Callahan and Richard Chávez on the issue, they evaded answering questions about who signed off on the contract to have a private company compile reports about online dissent against the DHS and the government, attempting to limit the conversation to DHS’ monitoring of keywords related to natural disasters in a bid to avoid the controversy altogether.
Asked what the DHS was doing to ensure that its social media monitoring program would not create a chilling environment whereby Americans would be reluctant to leave comments in online forums critical of government, Callahan repeated the talking point that the DHS was merely concerned with the “what not the who” of the process.
“Who directing what’s being monitored,” asked Meehan, to which Callahan responded by handing over to Chávez, who bumbled through a formulaic response that did not answer the question.
Growing frustrated, Meehan stated, “We know about the disasters, I don’t think we’re worried about the disasters,” before going back to his question about who was overseeing the program to analyze online dissent.
In the additional questions section of the hearing, Meehan returned to the question, asking, “Who begins the process of identifying what should be analyzed?”
“It’s not the National Operations Center,” responded Chávez, refusing to answer the question directly.
“Then who’s giving the direction?” repeated Meehan.
“That again does not come from national operations,” said Chávez.
Callahan then stepped in to repeat the talking point about natural disasters, again failing to address the key issue of DHS monitoring online dissent.
Chávez implied that other government agencies took the process deeper than the DHS, suggesting that intelligence agencies are monitoring the likes of Twitter to a far greater extent.
“DHS Chief Privacy Office Mary Ellen Callahan and Director of Operations Coordination and Planning Richard Chavez appeared to be deliberately stonewalling Congress on the depth, ubiquity, goals, and technical capabilities of the agency’s social media surveillance,” writes Neil Ungerleider.
“At other times, they appeared to be themselves unsure about their own project’s ultimate goals and uses. But one thing is for sure: If you’re the first person to tweet about a news story, or if you’re a community activist who makes public Facebook posts–DHS will have your personal information.”
“Another worrying tendency is the fact that DHS appears to be keeping tabs on individual American citizens engaged in community activism and hot-button political issues. EPIC’s evidence package to congress included FOIA-obtained data on community reaction to the housing of Guantanamo detainees in a Standish, MI prison.
Against the DHS’ own guidelines, the agency compiled a report titled Residents Voice Opposition Over Possible Plan to Bring Guantanamo Detainees to Local Prison-Standish MI.
This report contained sentiment gathered from newspaper comment talkbacks, local blogs, Twitter posts and publicly-available Facebook posts–something expressly forbidden by the DHS’ own policies.
Chavez and Callahan claimed that the report was not disseminated and that privacy policies forbid similar things from occurring; nonetheless the report was made and not obtained by EPIC until they sued the DHS.”