The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered an unusual contract (PDF) this month, soliciting bids from private software developers for a trial program that would scour the Internet for detailed information on all animal sales, potential animal welfare abuses and other unlawful economic activities relating to animals within the U.S.
In other words, the U.S. government is preparing to spend taxpayer money to spy on Americans’ Internet use, so that it can better protect animals and ensure their handlers have paid for all the proper licenses.
The program, according to a contract publicly available on FedBizOpps.gov, would see a third party developer creating a system that scours forums, websites, usenet groups, social media — and even live chat rooms — for any information relating to sales of pets, exotic animals, animals used for exhibit, teaching, testing or other experimentation, and, particularly, any and all potentially unlicensed hose shows or auctions.
The contract was offered as a six month pilot project, and it’s not clear how much money the USDA is prepared to put up for it. They also specify: “THE SCAN SHALL BE VIA INTERNET WEB TECHNOLOGY SEARCH ENGINE TOOLS, NOT A HUMAN BEING” — although humans would still have to rifle through the information collected by whatever software is created.
It specifies the realms of its search as: “Global Domain Registrations; World Wide Web; Social Networking Web sites; Web logs (Blogs); IRC/Chat conversations; Message Boards; Public email groups and discussion forums; Usenet Data; Auctions – eBay.com and Yahoo.com Auctions.”
The USDA also appears to acknowledge at least some budgetary restraint on the project, noting that travel costs will not be covered for any contractor. Contractors will also be required to create a web-based login system for USDA employees to monitor animal rights abuses online, and compile bi-weekly reports about aggregated information.
“The report shall provide search results of US Domestic Sites where regulated animals or activities are listed by U.S. companies who are selling to US customers, and shall include any information, if available, on U.S. individuals or businesses that are purchasing these animals,” the contract stipulates.
Information on people buying and selling animals is to include names and addresses, domain registration details, the person’s Internet service provider, and even their Internet protocol (IP) address, it adds.
A complicated criteria set out by the Federal Acquisition Institute stipulates that most data about the program be kept on-hand up to a year. Some information, like expense records, policies, practices, account histories and other records collected by or supporting the program, is to be saved for three to four years.
The program appears to be authorized under two specific laws: the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, which requires the USDA to regulate sales of “warm blood” animals and register organizations that sell or use horses. Circuses, ranches and horse auctions are most frequently targeted by regulators operating under these laws, and the Internet surveillance program appears to be a direct extension of those efforts.
“We’re glad to see that USDA is initiating a system to observe those on the Internet who conduct activities that fall under the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act,” Tracie Letterman, director of regulatory affairs for The Humane Society, told Raw Story. “With the widespread use of the Internet, it is a critical tool for the agency to catch those operating illegally or who may be harming animals protected by the law.”
Several other groups, including Friends of Animals, The Electronic Privacy Information Center, The Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, had no comment on this report.
Update: While the USDA did not respond to a request for comment on this report at press time, a spokesman emailed the following passage shortly after this story’s publication:
“USDA needed an efficient way to identify individuals who are engaged in regulated activities related to the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act. The Internet sales search engine will be an efficient way of accomplishing this task. This contract will allow USDA to identify individuals who are using the Internet to engage in the following activities: 1) selling animals that are to be used as pets; and 2) selling horses at horse shows, sales, exhibitions and auctions. During the initial six months of the contract, the vendor will monitor these sales, and then USDA will evaluate the services provided and proceed accordingly.”
The spokesman added that the program would primarily focus on people who are selling animals, and that it would be limited to information already available in the public realm.
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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