Homeland Security officials sparred with members of a House panel on Thursday over the department's monitoring of social media.
Members of the House Homeland Security Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee brandished a report by a civil-liberties group that indicated DHS has paid a contractor to monitor social-media content that “adversely” reflects on the U.S. government, as well as information on potential threats.
“Law-enforcement agency monitoring of online criticism and dissent chills legitimate criticism of the government, and implicates the First Amendment. Freedom of speech and expression are at the core of civil liberties and have been strongly protected by the Constitution and the U.S. courts,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which compiled the report from federal documents, said in a statement to the subcommittee. “Government programs that note and record online comments, dissent, and criticism for the purpose of subsequent investigation send a chilling message to online commenters, bloggers, and journalists —‘You are being watched.’ ”
Ranking member Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the report, which detailed $11 million in contracts with General Dynamics, “deeply troubling.” She pointed to policies that allowed for analysts to collect personally identifiable information on journalists and demanded that DHS suspend its monitoring programs until more privacy safeguards can be developed.
DHS Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan defended the program as limited to helping the agency gather details about natural disasters or other threats. Any criticism of the agency that might be recorded is done in the name of customer service, she said.
“We are interested in the ‘what’ not the ‘who’; that is what’s being identified and what we are concerned about,” Callahan said. “We’re looking at events, not individuals.”
She said many of the most explosive parts of EPIC’s report, including a provision that called for monitoring reaction to major government proposals, are based on old plans that were never implemented.
DHS does not follow specific individuals; instead analysts look for specific key words and websites, said Richard Chávez, director of the DHS Office of Operations Coordination and Planning.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., said he recognized the “delicate and difficult” balance between collecting necessary information about terrorists, criminals, or natural disasters, and preserving constitutional rights. But he said he fears some DHS actions may have crossed the line. “In my view, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating private citizens’ comments could have a chilling effect on individual privacy rights and people’s freedom of speech and dissent against their government,” he said.
The panel cited a case in which two British travelers were detained and questioned after one of them tweeted about their intent to “destroy America.” At a hearing of the full House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the incident was the result of a tip, not a monitoring program. “We aren’t sitting there monitoring social media looking for stuff. That’s not what we do,” she said.