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Social Media Surveillance OK'd by DHS 'Privacy Office'

Common Dreams staff

U.S. Department of Homeland Security analysts at National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC (Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)

A section of the US Department of Homeland Security known as the "Privacy Office" recently approved a DHS initiative designed to monitor social media sites for "emerging threats," according a new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting -- a move that will add to fears that the US government may be 'friending' and 'following' an increasing number of citizens for surveillance purposes.

Congress created the Privacy Office in 2003 to monitor DHS initiatives and databases to ensure citizens' rights are protected.

However, social media monitoring, an increasingly common practice used by Homeland Security and other US departments, has now been given the official stamp of approval.

"As Americans turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with one another, intelligence officials are looking for ways to harness that ocean of data and convert it into actionable information," CIR reports.

For example, in 2010, The Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that federal Immigration Services investigators were “friending” people on Facebook who were applying to become citizens in order to monitor their lives and "snoop for marriage details." Such activities are now acceptable forms of surveillance according to the Privacy Office.

The Homeland Security Department is currently on Twitter under the handle @DHSNOCMMC1 in a bid to conduct vast hashtag and keyword searches in hopes mining potential "threats."

"Program employees... hunt for dozens of keywords in the social media landscape using relatively simple and widely available tools like TweetDeck. For that reason, it’s unclear how words like 'burn,' 'cocaine' or 'collapse' can be analyzed effectively enough to reveal truly useful information among the hundreds of millions of tweets that course across the Web every day," G.W. Schulz of CIR writes.

The Department of Homeland Security is not alone in these projects. According to CIR reporting, the FBI is now developing a tool to "alert agents of developing threats on social media, scrape historical data from the Web that can be searched later and display messages coming from a defined geographical area."

The Department of Defense is exploring how to “forecast dynamic group behavior in social media" in a bid to "simultaneously scan more than 1,000 groups, more than 100,000 postings per day and more than 1 million people."

An entire industry has developed to satisfy these surveillance fantasies, soon to be reality, as a growing number of private tech firms are now marketing tools that are "capable of automatically analyzing vast segments of the Internet and make simple keyword searches elementary by comparison," and pitching them to US departments and law enforcement agencies.

Given the recent approval by the Privacy Office, "there are no assurances that down the road, homeland security officials won’t seek much more sophisticated tools that can automatically mine the [entire] Web for what they determine to be a threat or use secret tactics that alarm privacy rights advocates."

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