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Homeland Security monitoring policy debates in social media

February 24, 2012

'Program might chill people's freedom of speech and willingness to express dissent online'

Charlie Savage’s article for The New York Times makes it clear why governments can not be trusted with broad mandates and sweeping powers. Inevitably these powers will be abused. We see now that the Federals are predictably using the Internet to spy on citizens and their responses to proposals to further increase Federal power:

Analysts for a Department of Homeland Security program that monitors social networks like Twitter and Facebook have been instructed to produce reports on policy debates related to the department, a newly disclosed manual shows.

The manual, a 2011 reference guide for analysts working with the department’s Media Monitoring Capability program, raises questions about recent claims by Homeland Security officials who portrayed the program as limited to gathering information that would help gain operational awareness about attacks, disasters or other emerging problems.

Last month, a previous disclosure of documents related to the program showed that in 2009, when it was being designed, officials contemplated having reports produced about “public reaction to major governmental proposals with homeland security implications.”

But the department said it never put that category into practice when the program began in 2010. Officials repeated that portrayal in testimony last week before an oversight hearing by a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

“I am not aware of any information we have gathered on government proposals,” testified Richard Chavez, the director of the office that oversees the National Operations Center, which runs the program.

Still, the 2011 manual, which was disclosed this week as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, lists a series of categories that constitute an “item of interest” warranting a report. One category is discussion on social media networks of “policy directives, debates and implementations related to DHS.”

It is not clear whether the department has produced such reports. Matthew Chandler, a department spokesman, said Wednesday that in practice the program had been limited to “social media monitoring for situational awareness only.”

…At the hearing last week, lawmakers of both parties said it made sense for the department to use the Internet to gather information about emerging events, but they voiced concerns that if it went further than that, the program might chill people’s freedom of speech and willingness to express dissent online.

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