Lawmaker Demands DHS Cease Monitoring of Blogs, Social Media

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) has demanded an end to DHS online monitoring. Photo: Courtesy Rep. Speier

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) said Thursday she wants the Department of Homeland Security to cease its social-media and news-monitoring operation.

Speaking at a Homeland Security subcommittee┬áhearing, the California lawmaker said she was “outraged” that the agency has hired a contractor to review a variety of social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, and that General Dynamics is being tasked with reviewing news sources, blogs and their bylines for all types of articles, including those containing anti-American sentiment and reaction to policy proposals.

“This should not be a political operation,” she said.

Speier said she found it particularly egregious that the department was analyzing the authors behind the online words.

“I find that outrageous,” she said during the 90-minute hearing of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. She said the agency should amend its $11 million contract with General Dynamics “to prevent that type of information from being collected.”

The monitoring largely came to light in January after the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the DHS to obtain information about the little-known program. Some of the sites on its watchlist included Wikileaks, Drudge Report and, among others, Wired’s Threat Level and Danger Room blogs.

Mary Ellen Callahan, the DHS chief privacy officer, said, “We are just focusing on the event, the situation that is going on, and not worrying about the individual.”

But Callahan also said that the agency, indeed, does analyze who the author is of a particular work to determine if the report is “relevant and adds credibility to the report itself.”

Speier countered, saying: “I’m suggesting to you that it is irrelevant and you don’t need it and you should suspend that part of the contract.”

Callahan said, “We don’t collect information on individuals. We don’t monitor them in regards to First Amendment activity.”

Ginger McCall, an EPIC attorney, said in a telephone interview that the privacy group wants DHS to abandon the program (.pdf), which dates to at least 2006.

“We have asked for the program to be suspended,” she said. She added that EPIC wants DHS to “suspend the collection of public reaction and reports to policy proposals that reflect adversely on DHS or the government.”

Speier, during the hearing, said: “I for one wholeheartedly agree with their recommendations.”

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pennsylvania), the subcommittee’s chairman, suggested the program had a “chilling effect” leading to a “forfeit” of “an expectation right of privacy.” Neither he nor anybody else in the 12-member committee went as far as Speier to suggest that the DHS abandon the “Social Networking/Media Capability” program.

According to the records EPIC obtained, the program involves the monitoring of “publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards.”

The documents showed that, in 2009, the DHS monitored residents’ reaction to an Obama administration proposal, now scuttled, to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in Standish, Michigan.

Richard Chavez, the DHS director of office operations, was asked by the subcommittee why the government even needed to contract with General Dynamics to monitor the internet, and instead perform that mission with government staff.

Chavez said the contractor employed “skilled technicians in surfing the web.”