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Homeland Security Committee Hearing on DHS Monitoring of Social Media (Live Blog)

11:35 AM – Meehan concludes the hearing and mentions how state fusion centers in Pennsylvania conducted monitoring operations and sent information not just to agencies but private entities. He thanks the witnesses for being at the hearing but says the subcommittee will continue to ask questions.

The meeting is adjourned.

11:33 AM – Committee member wanted to know why $11 million is being spent to follow the news. ACLU of Massachusetts asks, “DHS, why do you need to pay a private corporation $11 million to follow breaking news? Don’t have CNN?”

11:32 AM – ACLU of Massachusetts is doing great coverage on Twitter. A committee member asked what the program is used for. The chapter says, “Callahan continues to dodge questions about anything other than “situational awareness,” otherwise known as “Reading the News.” And they ask if Chavez is throwing FBI under the bus as he keeps saying another agency does spying, not DHS.

11:26 AM – These witnesses sound so incompetent and they are so nauseating in their constant repetition of bureaucratic tripe that a representative says he cannot even remember what they were supposed to talk about during this hearing.

11:22 AM – Cravaack is back. Thompson says there is an RFP (request for proposals) out. He suggests that Callahan and Chavez are misleading subcommittee on nature of General Dynamics’ contract. Both look like deer in headlights and have no idea what they are being asked about. They maybe lied but they seem so incompetent that they probably have no idea they did.

11:17 AM – Thompson asking follow-up. He gets into notion of identifying political and journalistic activities that reflect adversely on the federal government. Chavez says DHS doesn’t do this. Thompson is a bit befuddled. He goes back to the contract. Chavez says we don’t focus on one media source. It goes back to media provided, not the provider, he says. Thompson says General Dynamics has expertise and can look at media and newspapers better than department. Chavez says we are not all watching TVs so DHS is pushing out information.

Thompson says Callahan designed a program without any review of whether another agency is doing it. Thompson says she took nine months to put the program together and he wants to know if another agency is doing something. Thompson would assume DoD or FBI would do something like this. Callahan says she doesn’t know. “That isn’t the right answer from due diligence standpoint,” Thompson says.

11:09 AM – Callahan says they do monitor national special security events. We monitor the what, not the whos. Chavez said they would look for keywords. Meehans interrupts and wants to know who identifies what should be analyzed. Who is it that says go after the what?

DHS will see what’s trending. Meehan wants to know how this works. This is kind of hysterical but somewhat seedy how DHS is answering these questions and making some of these representatives crazy.

11:07 AM – Meehan asks follow-up and wants to know about not having repeat incident like what happened with Standish, MI.

Callahan says issue of Standish, MI, and transfer of Guantanamo detainees was not a live report. So would not happen again. Standish, MI, example is an anomaly in a two-year old handbook.

11:05 AM – Representative (?) wants to know if a single source could put misinformation or disinformation and make it hard for DHS to understand what is happening. DHS looks at multiple sources on social media during a disaster so Callahan and Chavez said there wouldn’t be a problem.

11:02 AM – Callahan repeats that the standard DHS operates under is not the “who” but the “what.” No personally identifiable information collected unless there are life or death circumstances. Only stored in reports. We do not do analyses. We publish system of records notices under Privacy Act. For transparency purposes, this is done to show what categories we are using when collecting personally identifiable information.

11:00 AM – Rep. Cravaack is up for questioning. Part of General Dynamics contract to track what is negatively being but to see if agencies or departments are meeting standards. It is part of operational awareness.

10:56 AM – Privacy reviews look to make sure that staff is complying with standards, Callahan says. She says there were 2 circumstances where public officials were named; for example, President Obama. The example of having a public official like a president is why we have narrow categories of what can be disclosed. She says identifying Giffords as target of an attack helped response.

10:51 AM – Thompson wants DHS to write out why there was a delay on EPIC’s FOIA request. Thompson asks about General Dynamics contract. He wants to know why DHS is training a private contractor. Thompson is confused because private contractors usually have a general expertise. But, Chavez says we are training outside people to do inside work. Thompson wants to know what skill sets General Dynamics brings to the table [They have an $11 million contract.]

Chavez says that DHS does not have skill sets to monitor websites. He says they do. Thompson asks for the procurement document for General Dynamics. Chavez doesn’t know what Thompson is asking. General Dynamics has had contract since Chavez began working for DHS.

Questions raised by EPIC, Thompson says, suggest “significant issues around safeguards.” It would be good to bring EPIC and other individuals to testify before subcommittee.

10:47 AM – “This is not a political operaton.” Capturing public reaction to major government proposals should not be what is done, Speier states.

Callahan says that this is well outside the scope of DHS. If you look, you can see that Standish, MI, report only exists in my files because of privacy review we conducted.

EPIC recommends: 1) cease collecting info on journalists 2) suspend DHS monitoring until safeguards in place and 3) you provide annual report on collecting of information. She says I think that we should have representatives of EPIC and others in privacy community testify before the subcommittee.

10:44 AM – Speier puts witnesses on notice for not responding to EPIC’s FOIA request. Says no organization should have to file a lawsuit. Speier asks to amend contract with General Dynamics to exempt tracking of journalists and building of files on bloggers so Privacy Act is not violated.

Callahan clarifies that reporters’ information collected is name, affiliation, title and publicly available ID. DHS only collects information if it lends to credibility of report.

10:42 AM – Privacy office reviews keywords being tracked like “disaster” or “floods.” No information is collected on individuals but they may be first on the scene.

10:39 AM – Callahan is talking about privacy reviews and auditing. Meehan interrupts and asks who is directing what is being monitored. Chavez now says keywords associated with events in past or agencies are monitored. There is no way to look at all of messages on Twitter so this is what they monitor.

Meehan follows up – The limited people working for you could spend limitless time without producing a product so there has to be direction. Where does line get drawn when it comes to overlooking general discussion?

10:35 AM – Meehan is concerned some of the reports on monitoring of social media. Testimony has been revealing in sense of giving us an overall perspective. We all appreciate government being able to broadcast through social media. We can go past those kind of things.

“We’re here today because we are trying to find that line.” It is not just expectation of privacy. We know they are communicating in public fora. We are talking about monitoring communications on message boards or forums. Help us understand what you are doing to ensure individual communication is not leading to individuals being ID’ed by the govt. What are you doing to make sure there isn’t a chilling effect so someone concerned about an issue will not be relevant to write a letter to the editor or post a blog?

We are concerned about directive DHS has with private contractor that says reports that reflect adversely on government agencies should be identified. “This appears to be what was asked for in the contract with General Dynamics.” Tell me what we are doing so private commentary is not being misused.

10:31 AM – Chavez gives opening statement. Here’s a copy of the statement.

10:30 AM – Not going to transcribe what Callahn is saying when it probably comes from her opening statement, which is posted here.

10:28 AM – Talking about standard allowing collection of personal identifiable information. After January 2011, limited personal identifiable information may be collected when it lends important invitation. First weekend that this information was allowed to be collected was when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

10:27 AM – Callahan says there is a lot of personal information that is not necessary for DHS to use. There are department-wide standards for use.

Three uses: external communications and outreach, awareness of breaking news and situational awareness statements and when law enforcement needs it for investigations. There are uniform privacy standards and DHS is transparent.

10:26 AM – Statement from EPIC (referenced in original post) now entered into record

10:23 AM – Witnesses give opening statements now – Mary Ellen Callahan and Richard Chávez, both affiliated with DHS

10:20 AM – Rep. Bennie G. Thompson celebrating how social media can be used to save people in the event of a disaster. He says that to ensure accountability and trust are embraced as value DHS must embrace safeguards & clear policy on data mining. There should be protocols to follow if there are violations. Public must be confident that interacting with DHS will not result in surveillance or violation of constitutional rights.

10:15 AM – Rep. Meehan introduces topic of today’s hearing, notes previous hearing on “Terrorist Use of Social Media” and neglects to mention witnesses concluded it would be best to let them use the media and just track their activity.

Rep. Speier is giving her open statement now. She mentions how a couple from UK was not allowed in the US because of a joke posted on Twitter. She mentions how the Occupy movement and Arab Spring harnessed Twitter. She says she will ask about privacy protections in place that regulate DHS monitoring. She wants to know how Department handles volume of postings on social media.

Original Post

A congressional committee hearing is being held today on the Homeland Security Department’s (DHS) monitoring of social media. The meeting, being convened by the House Subcommittee of Counterterrorism and Intelligence, chaired by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), is being held as a result of documents on DHS monitoring that were exposed through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public research center that focuses attention on emerging issues of privacy and other civil liberties issues.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The hearing will happen at 10 am ET. It can be watched here. And I will be tweeting and/or live blogging the hearing.  [Follow @kgosztola for the latest updates.]

EPIC has not been invited to speak to the hearing as a witness. The two witnesses that will be present are Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer for DHS, and Richard Chávez, the director of the Office of Operations Coordination and Planning at DHS. The group, however, did submit a statement that will be included in the record and is essential reading for anyone, who wants to know exactly what EPIC uncovered and why it is significant. The statement is also strong because it calls for DHS to end all social media monitoring operations.

The organization notes, “EPIC obtained nearly 3,000 pages of documents detailing the Department of Homeland Security’s activities.” EPIC filed a FOIA lawsuit in December 2011 that forced the release of documents they had requested.

From EPIC’s “Statement for the Record“:

These documents reveal that the agency had paid over $11 million to an outside company, General Dynamics, to engage in monitoring of social networks and media organizations and to prepare summary reports for DHS. According to DHS documents, General Dynamics will “Monitor public social communications on the Internet,” including the public comment sections of NYT, LA Times, Huff Po, Drudge, Wired’s tech blogs, ABC News. DHS also requested monitoring of Wikipedia pages for changes and announced its plans to set up social network profiles to monitor social network users.

DHS required General Dynamics to monitor not just “potential threats and hazards,” “potential impact on DHS capability” to accomplish its homeland security mission, and “events with operational value,” but also paid the company to “Identify[] reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond or recovery government activities.”

Within the documents, DHS clearly stated its intention to “capture public reaction to major government proposals.” DHS instructed the media monitoring company to generate summaries of media “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.”

Both Meehan and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) of the Subcommittee wrote a letter to the Homeland Security Department. The letter asked various questions and stated the following:

Although there are clear advantages to monitoring social media to identify possible threats to our security, there are also privacy and civil liberties concerns implicit in this activity. With its domestic mission, the Department of Homeland Security needs to be mindful of the rights of the citizens of our country to express themselves online. Not only should guidance issued by the Department permit analysts to do their jobs identifying threats, but it should also be stringent enough to protect the rights of our citizens.

The letter called for “clear effective guidance” to be issued on the collection of information by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. At no point does the letter suggest DHS monitoring of social media should not be going on. It simply suggests it is not regulated to an extent that protects Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.


When the hearing begins, updates will appear at the top. All times will be EST.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."