Big Sister Is Watching: DHS Monitors Social Media

The world has seen a wave of civil unrest sweep across nations this year and as a result the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking measures to prevent any sign of social disturbance from happening within America. One of the measures include monitoring social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, for clues on growing civil disobedience.

“We're still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source," said DHS Undersecretary Caryn Wagner, according to The Associated Press.

"How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?"

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The undersecretary went on to explain that the use of social media in uprisings, which began in December in Tunisia, prompted U.S. officials to do a more efficient job of monitoring domestic social networking activity.

Wagner also said that the DHS would create new guidelines to focus on “gleaning information from sites such as Twitter and Facebook for law enforcement purposes.” However, she went on to mention, that the guidelines would be implemented under strict laws “meant to prevent spying on Americans.”

Still, many social media users express concern that the government would track what they do on social sites.

“I agree with the motive behind the government's proposed choice, but still view it as an invasion of privacy against its citizens,” Mark Smiley, a 25-year-old research analyst, told The Christian Post.

“It is unlikely that Intel would be used in a way that is going to bring harm or inconvenience an innocent citizen, but it makes me uncomfortable because it is possible. I see this as no different than tapping our phone lines.”

Smiley went on to say that if the government were to track social media sites it would be problematic considering the flippant and sarcastic nature of messages posted on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“Sarcastic statements can be easily misinterpreted.”

Wagner admitted that using social media for Intel could be difficult in that it is hard to determine the validity of claims made online.

"I can post anything on Facebook, is that valid? If 20 people are tweeting the same thing, then maybe that is valid," she said to AP.

"There are just a lot of questions that we are sort of struggling with because it's a newly emerging [issue]."

While the DHS still has kinks to work out in their method of online monitoring, it is definitely not a new phenomenon nor is it native to just the DHS. This week, Fast Company revealed that the New York Federal Bank is the most recent organization to try its hand at social media monitoring. This is due, in part, to the Occupy Wall Street protests as the Fed wants to know “how they are perceived.” The Fed is now “evaluating bids for a social media analysis system that will mine data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and web forums – beginning in December.”

The Atlantic Journal explains how leery citizens like Smiley should perhaps be more concerned with how the government can monitor more traditional online channels, like email. While there is reason to be concerned about the monitoring of social media, participants post things on social media sites knowing that it will be in the public venue. Emails, however, are often meant to remain private.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the government "obtained a controversial type of secret court order to force Google Inc. and small Internet provider Inc. to turn over information from the email accounts of WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum" and mentions that this type of secret request happens often. According to The Atlantic Wire, “In the second half of 2010 alone, the government sent 4,601 such requests to Google, who complied 94 percent of the time.”

The law, however, does little to protect citizens’ private data.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed in 1986 and therefore is older than the Internet which was created in 1989. The law, as it stands, allows law enforcement to obtain emails, cell-phone location, and other digitized documents without a search warrant. The government must just show “reasonable grounds” that the records would be “relevant and material” to an investigation.

Currently, big name technical companies like Google and Microsoft are lobbying Congress to update the privacy laws to include a mandatory search warrant in digital investigations.

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