(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

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: [cont’d.]

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.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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