January 16, 2012, 9:00 PM — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is engaging in media monitoring activity that achieves no public safety goals and will likely have a chilling effect on legitimate criticism of the agency, a leading privacy advocacy group warned Friday.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center's conclusion is based on an analysis of documents it received from the government this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The documents show that DHS has hired General Dynamics to monitor and summarize reports from numerous media outlets, blogs and social networking sites.
Computerworld is one of dozens of news media and blog sites that are being monitored by the DHS under a broad initiative aimed at improving the government's situational awareness. Others on the list include The New York Times, Wired, the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report.
The information gathered from such sites is intended to help the DHS' Office of Operations Coordination and Planning keep on top of potential threats and hazards to public safety, the DHS documents say.
According to the DHS, one of OPS' missions is to maintain real-time situational awareness by gathering, coordinating, and sharing information among federal, state and local law enforcement. The media and social network monitoring supports the activities of a broader Network Operations Center which issues advisories, alerts and bulletins relating to national security threats.
The problem is that some of the media and network monitoring appears to have little to do with furthering public safety, said Ginger McCall, director of EPIC's Open Government Project.
For instance, as part of its $11 million contract with the DHS, General Dynamics is supposed to collect reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. government, including the DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the CIA and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The company is expected to generate "reports on DHS, Components, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS" the documents show.
The DHS could not be reached for comment.
McCall pointed to DHS training materials obtained by EPIC that summarize reaction to news media reports about a proposal to bring Guantanamo detainees to a local prison in Standish, Mich. The report is based on comments made by local residents on Facebook , Twitter , three different blogs and reader comments on an unidentified media site.