Exactly what is Homeland Security watching for on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube?

The idea that any number of federal institutions are watching your every move on social networks like Facebook, Twitter is unnerving at best. The Department of Homeland Security is one of those agencies and today it testified before a House subcommittee to define and defend its role in social media monitoring.

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence subcommittee's chairman, opened the hearing by saying it was reported that DHS had instituted a program to produce short reports about threats and hazards.

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"However, in something that may cross the line, these reports also revealed that DHS had tasked analysts with collecting intelligence on media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government and the Department of Homeland Security. In one example, DHS used multiple social networking tools — including Facebook, Twitter, three different blogs, and reader comments in newspapers to capture resident's reactions to a possible plan to bring Guantanamo detainees to a local prison in Standish, Mich.

In my view, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating private citizens' comments could have a chilling effect on individual privacy rights and people's freedom of speech and dissent against their government," Meehan stated.

Meehan went on to say if an individual willingly and publicly uses Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section of a newspaper website, they, in effect, forfeit their right to any expectation of privacy. "However, other private individuals reading public Facebook status updates or Twitter feeds is different than the Department of Homeland Security reading them, analyzing them, and possibly disseminating them. My worry — and the worry of many Americans — is what else the government may be doing with the information collected. What safeguards are in place to ensure the online activity of innocent Americans is not being monitored and stored by their government?" Meehan asked.

In response, DHS officials said the agency currently has a presence on many of the major social networking platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In addition, FEMA launched a FEMA app for smartphones that contains preparedness information for different types of disasters. Similarly, the Transportation Security Administration has MyTSA Mobile Application, which enables the traveling public access to relevant TSA travel information, such as types of items that may be carried through TSA security checkpoints, or estimated wait times, DHS stated.

Mary Ellen Callahan, DHS chief privacy officer, told the hearing that it may be appropriate for the government, including DHS, to use social media for a variety of reasons.

"DHS recognizes that the use of social media by government actors must occur with appropriate privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections; whether DHS is disclosing its information and press releases via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, reviewing news feeds for situational awareness, or researching identified, discrete targets for legitimate investigatory purposes," she said.

DHS has created department-wide standards designed to protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties in each category of its use. There are three general ways in which DHS utilizes social media, and each has associated privacy protections:

•External communications and outreach between the department and the public.

•Awareness of breaking news of events or situations related to homeland security, known as "situational awareness."

•Operational use, when DHS has the appropriate authorities, such as law enforcement and investigations.

In each category, the department has set standards that incorporate privacy protections, create standards across the components and department, and are transparent with regard to the scope of our activities, Callahan stated.

Callahan said by examining open source traditional and social media information, comparing it with many other sources of information, and including it where appropriate in DHS National Operations Center NOC reports, the NOC can provide a more comprehensive picture of breaking or evolving events.

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Following the three discrete social media monitoring pilots by the NOC in 2010, the Privacy Office did a thorough (and public) Privacy Compliance Review of the NOC's implementation of the privacy protections. The Privacy Office's review found that the NOC's social media monitoring activities did not collect private information, did not monitor or track individuals' comments, and complied with the stated privacy parameters set forth in the underlying privacy impact statements, Callahan stated.

The DHS NOC does not: 1) actively seek private information except for the narrow exceptions; 2) post any information on social media sites; 3) actively seek to connect with internal/external social media users; 4) accept internal/external personal users' invitations to connect; or 5) interact on social media sites. The NOC is, however, permitted to establish user names and passwords to form profiles and follow relevant government, media, and subject matter experts on social media, Callahan stated.

Callahan testified that after conducting a Privacy Compliance Review, the Privacy Office determined that regulations should be updated to allow for the collection and dissemination of private information in a very limited number of situations. After January 2011, private information on the following categories of individuals may be collected when it lends credibility to the report or facilitates coordination with federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and foreign governments, or international law enforcement partners:

1) U.S. and foreign individuals in extremis, i.e., in situations involving potential life or death circumstances;

2) Senior U.S. and foreign government officials who make public statements or provide public updates;

3) U.S. and foreign government spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;

4) U.S. and foreign private sector officials and spokespersons who make public statements or provide public updates;

5) Names of anchors, newscasters, or on-scene reporters who are known or identified as reporters in their posts or articles, or who use traditional and/or social media in real time to provide their audience situational awareness and information;

6) Current and former public officials who are victims of incidents or activities related to homeland security; and

7) Terrorists, drug cartel leaders, or other persons known to have been involved in major crimes of homeland security interest.

DHS workers cannot review individuals' information unless they have appropriate underlying authority and supervisory approval. Moreover, Office of Operations Coordination and Planning and Office of Intelligence and Analysis have additional specific policies on the use of social media for operational purposes. One of DHS' responsibilities is to confirm our work is being done under the appropriate legal framework for federal law enforcement activities, Callahan stated.

However, with increased access to individuals' personal information posted on the Internet and social media sites, these DHS components have been reminded that they must also be conscious of privacy considerations, Callahan stated.

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