One of the nation’s leading electronic privacy groups claimed this week that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) misled members of Congress during a recent hearing on whether the Department is paying a defense contractor $11.4 million to keep tabs on protected free speech and dissent against government policies on the Internet.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which triggered the hearing by publishing a trove of secret government documents in January, told Raw Story on Thursday that a second round of documents they’ve obtained directly contradicts testimony given on Feb. 16, showing that the DHS instructed their analysts to do exactly what the Department denied.
“There were several exchanges that they had with members of Congress in which they sort of distanced themselves from the idea — that they weren’t engaging in this monitoring of public reaction to government proposals,” McCall told Raw Story. “But that’s… Well, it’s not true, according to the documents we obtained.”
Altogether, the documents released by EPIC in January and in February reveal that the Department is paying defense contractor General Dynamics to monitor the Internet for “reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities,” including “reports that pertain to DHS and sub agencies — especially those that have a negative spin on DHS/Component preparation, planning, and response activities,” among other things.
“The DHS testimony, as well as the documents obtained by EPIC, indicate that the agency is monitoring constantly, under very broad search terms, and is not limiting that monitoring to events or activities related to natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or manmade disasters,” McCall explained to lawmakers. “The monitoring is designed to be over-broad, and sweeps in large amounts of First Amendment activity. The DHS has no legal authority to engage in this monitoring.”
In an email exchange, DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler insisted that they only monitor social media “for situational awareness purposes only, within the clearly defined parameters articulated in our Privacy Impact Assessment (PDF), to ensure that critical information reaches appropriate decision-makers.” He added that the DHS will “review the language contained in all materials to clearly and accurately convey the parameters and the intention of the program.”
Documents published by EPIC show that analysts were instructed to watch for “both positive and negative reports” about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the strangely wide-ranging “organizations outside of DHS.” Other “items of interest” include discussions about immigration policies, drug policies, cyber security matters, and U.S. foreign policy.
About 300 pages of documents (PDF) obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and published by EPIC in January revealed that analysts were specifically told to scour the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter in search of “any media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government,” and to zero in on discussions criticizing government policies and proposals.
Revelations in that initial round of documents triggered a Feb. 16 Congressional hearing and sent DHS officials backpedaling, insisting that type of monitoring was only discussed, not implemented. On the same day of the hearing, EPIC published its second round of documents, revealing a DHS manual on social media monitoring dated “2011,” which carries detailed instructions on what agency analysts are supposed to look for.
“This has a profound effect on free speech online if you feel like a government law enforcement agency — particularly the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to look for terrorists — is monitoring your criticism, your dissent, of the government,” McCall told Raw Story.
Reached for comment, aides to subcommittee Chairman Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and ranking member Jackie Speier (D-CA) said they had not read EPIC’s letter, offering no further statements.
Similarly, General Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment, and it is still not clear if the company actually produced reports for the DHS detailing public dissent against government policies, or if the Department’s instructions to social media analysts were even ever implemented.
EPIC said that its lawsuit against DHS was continuing, and that they would press members of Congress for further hearings on the matter. Meanwhile, they have proposed that Congress suspend the DHS program and investigate whether these same practices are being carried out by other agencies.
It is already a matter of public record that the U.S. Air Force has purchased software used for “persona management” across multiple social media platforms, which gives information operatives the ability to control a virtual army of fake people online. Military officials told Raw Story that the software was being used for “classified social media activities” overseas.
The DHS Analyst’s Desktop Binder document is embedded below.
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