A recent Reuters report revealed that the Department of Homeland Security is now monitoring several new media and social networking websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, Wikileaks, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, and various blogs. This "Social Networking/Media Capability” program has been in operation since June of 2010, according to official DHS sources. The DHS statement goes on to explain that the information gleaned from these sites has been used to support FEMA during disaster relief efforts and to improve the security capabilities of other DHS agencies, including the Secret Service.
Revelations about the program have precipitated several concerned and, at times, outraged statements from citizens and lawmakers in the U.S. For many, the move is seen as a further encroachment of an already Orwellian government on the private lives of its citizens. Are these concerns justified?
According to the report, there is no indication that any of the information being monitored by the DHS goes beyond what is available to any person with an internet connection and web browser. DHS statements do not imply that they have access to non-public user data, and while websites like Facebook have their own data privacy issues, nothing written suggests that that they’re sharing private details with the DHS or any other federal agency in the absence of due legal process. My own inquiry to the DHS media representative on this issue has not yet received a reply; watch this space.
Admittedly, it is entirely rational that DHS should monitor such websites. While social media was previously a space to post pictures of cats and grammatically solecistic banality, recent events like the Arab Spring have shown that social media has evolved into a relevant and innovative tool that allows people across the world to communicate up-to-the-second information and coordinate in ways that were heretofore impossible. As the agency charged with keeping the United States safe, the DHS is given the task of intelligence gathering and event monitoring. Since event reporting is no longer the sole domain of newscasters like CNN and news agencies like AP and Reuters, why should event monitoring remain tethered to these old-media outlets?
While it’s wise to remain wary of possible infractions of civil liberties and violations of data privacy by government intelligence agencies, there’s currently no evidence that the DHS’s Social Networking/Media Capability program represents either. There is pressure on the Department to issue strict guidelines outlining how such information should be gathered and what types of activities should be monitored, and such action would probably be a wise move by the Department to ease public concern. Gathering information that people choose to make public is not a violation of civil liberties, but transparency on the side of DHS would benefit both the agency and those it is working to protect.
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