The U.S. Department of Homeland Security monitors Twitter and Facebook, among dozens of popular websites, sparking concerns over privacy and the reach of government to ensure public safety.
Reuters is reporting that a DHS “privacy compliance review,” released in November, says the agency is operating a “Social Networking/Media Capability” program, which regularly monitors publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards to collect information to offer “situational awareness.”
The report states the the DHS, and others like the Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management agency, used information gathered under the program. The program helped gather information in relation to the 2010 Haitian earthquake, for example, as well as for security and border control during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The DHS maintains that the program helps command center officials keep tabs on Internet media so they can keep abreast of major development events and respond accordingly.
However, the monitoring program is sparking outcry from those who fear it may overstep government authority and infringe on online privacy. Some opposed to the program say it can give a list of reporters, bloggers or active community members, who can then be targeted by the agency.
The DHS is not the first agency to check in on Internet action to sniff out trends and gauge popular sentiment. Last fall, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, recognizing social media’s potential to shape public opinion, asked for a for proposal to analyze Facebook and Twitter conversations by the public, bloggers, and other influencers for the department’s Communications Group.
The New York Fed joined Wall Street, which analyzes Twitter and other social media to inform investment decisions, in response to news pointing to a correlation between the collective mood expressed in millions of tweets and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The Department’s command center said it expects to keep tabs on Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks, more than a dozen aggregators, news and gossip sites like Huffington Post, and blogs like JihadWatch — all included in the five-page list of the specific Internet traffic the DHS released.
Under the program’s rules, the agency will not keep permanent copies of information, but can keep it for up to five years.
The news of the DHS program may spark controversy, but it also demonstrates the reality that the new barometer of popular sentiment, and the place to find out what is happening now, is most likely found on the Internet.