Free Markets, Free People


DHS monitoring the internet … er, so?

There’s a tempest in a tea pot brewing right now that I’m not sure I understand.

The story from Reuters:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s command center routinely monitors dozens of popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks and news and gossip sites including the Huffington Post and Drudge Report, according to a government document.

A "privacy compliance review" issued by DHS last November says that since at least June 2010, its national operations center has been operating a "Social Networking/Media Capability" which involves regular monitoring of "publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards."

The purpose of the monitoring, says the government document, is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture."

The document adds, using more plain language, that such monitoring is designed to help DHS and its numerous agencies, which include the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, to manage government responses to such events as the 2010 earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and security and border control related to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Let’s see … a department that has the job of “homeland security” monitoring open source internet venues to collect information in order to maintain situational awareness.

Wow.  For some reason I’m underwhelmed.  My goodness, haven’t we seen shots of various command centers over the years with split video screens showing Fox, CNN and MSNBC?   They’re good sources of immediate information that help those engaged in all sorts of rather benign activity (disaster relief?) keep abreast of breaking news. 

Why all the hyperventilating over something that is and has been fairly routine for all sorts of agencies over the years?  

Look, everyone here knows I’m not a fan of big intrusive government, but what would you do here, ban the department from gathering information and intelligence from sites that are open to everyone else?   Should we also ban them from “monitoring” the NY Times and Washington Post.

Oh, and by the way, this isn’t news.  As the Reuters story claims, this has been going on since June of 2010.  And guess who broke the story then?  The Volokh Conspiracy.  As Stewart Baker points out:

The story is that people at DHS are, gasp, browsing the Internet. As I said then, there’s no scandal, other than the electrons wasted by DHS agonizing over the privacy implications of browsing public Internet sources to find out what’s happening in the world.

And if it was a nonstory in February of 2010, what does that make it in January of 2012?

Actually, it’s a lesson — that both the mainstream media and the blogosphere are doggedly overreporting anything that could be deemed a privacy violation by government, especially DHS.  If you only followed these things casually, you’d be sure that DHS was constantly violating Americans’ rights, and reports like this would be a key bit of evidence.  But when you give the “story” a little scrutiny, all you find is an agency that needs to know what’s happening in an emergency and that is looking at public social media sites for information, just like the rest of us.  There’s no privacy issue there at all, despite the heavy breathing and the headlines.

Or perhaps before crying wolf, one ought to take a breath and get into the details of the story.  There are plenty of things to concern one’s self with other than this non-story.

For instance:

U.S. officials told the New York Times that they’re “looking closely” at Shabab’s use of Twitter and their options for legal and other responses. Separately, Sen. Joe Lieberman (@JoeLieberman), Chair of the Homeland Security Committee, called on Twitter to shut down the Taliban’s accounts.

Other Western governments have also turned against Twitter. British Prime Minister David Cameron (@Number10gov), for example, raised the prospect of banning Twitter during social disturbances, following its use by rioters in the U.K., and Mexican prosecutors have accused Twitter users of terrorism for spreading false rumors that have led to real-life violence.

An Israeli legal advocacy group, Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, has separately threatened Twitter with legal action for hosting the Shabab and Hezbollah accounts. Who will win in court is unclear: It’s a First Amendment versus providing services for terrorists toss-up.

And:

US Representatives Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced a bill into the House of Representatives in mid-December that would roll back the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy, which mandates that any published research that was funded by the federal science agency be submitted to the publically accessible digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication in journals. The bill, H.R. 3699, would also make it illegal for other federal agencies to adopt similar open-access policies.

The legislation, referred to as the Research Works Act, is being applauded by the Association of American Publishers, a book publishing industry trade organization that claims the NIH policy and others like it undercut the scientific publishing business, which seldom receives federal funds. “At a time when job retention, US exports, scholarly excellence, scientific integrity, and digital copyright protection are all priorities, the Research Works Act ensures the sustainability of this industry,said Tom Allen, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in a statement.

Want to get your britches in a bunch, there are two stories that should help wad them up.  Censoring Twitter (and that’s precisely where all of that is headed) and making opaque research which you, the taxpayer has funded to help a crony profit?  Now both of those are worthy of condemnation and outrage.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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4 Responses to DHS monitoring the internet … er, so?

  • Meanwhile, we need increased transparency into research used for public policy.
    All research used for federal regulations should be reproducible and available for public inspection.

  • You know, I’m not so sure.

    Its not like a single person attempting to monitor someone. If you take all the data together and digest it with a bunch of algorithms, you can figure things out that an individual couldn’t.

    I’m not just talking about social media data, but your cell phone tower location data (or gps data), security camera data, etc.

    You could probably sift through all that data and establish a person’s lifestyle, their spending habits, circle of friends, etc. You could be monitored to determine if you buying the stuff you need to grow pot in your basement and checking against your circle of friends as known pot users, a computer could flag you for investigation.

    Long story short, the data that make available to the ‘public domain’ which is not meaningful if you don’t aggregate it used to require people actively working to aggregate that data. Now that can be done on computers instead.

    If you go the gun range frequently and walk out gun stores $500 poorer, I know you have guns and if I was meticulous, I know roughly how many.

    What you might consider private leaves an impression on what you do in public and if I can pull together enough of that public data maybe add a little grey area public data (like credit reports), I can know what you do in private.

    Doesn’t sound like the use here, though. But how long before there are ‘social/public media’ databases on individuals if not already. So I understand wanting to say wait a second and check out what they are doing.

    • @jpm100 That is true, but I believe there are laws against amassing such data against citizens in the US… or at least specifically targeting citizens in gathering information. At least, for intelligence gathering it is (used to be?) that way. Or is this considered law enforcement?