DHS scoured social media sites during Obama inauguration for 'items of interest'
EFF has released documents that reveal a broad range of targets, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as NPR and DailyKos
By Jaikumar Vijayan
October 14, 2010 06:00 AM ET
Computerworld - An electronic rights advocacy group is expressing concern over what it contends was an overly broad surveillance of social networking sites conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the days leading up to the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently obtained documents pertaining to the DHS's monitoring of social networking sites through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.
The documents show that the DHS established a unit called the Social Network Monitoring Center (SNMC) last year to scour social sites for signs of potential security threats during the presidential inauguration.
The sites targeted by the SNMC included predictable ones such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, in addition to more demographically focused sites such as MiGente and BlackPlanet.
The SNMC's other surveillance targets included news sites such as NPR, CNN's iReport and DailyKos, a site that specializes in political commentary.
Throughout the inauguration period, the SNMC was tasked with looking for "items of interest" in posts pertaining to events, organizations and activities. The SNMC was to then conduct an analysis of the data it gathered and create a summary and exception report based on observed trends over a 24-hour period.
The DHS documents make it explicitly clear that the SNMC was prohibited from collecting or storing personally identifiable information such as names, e-mail addresses and IP addresses.
Even so, the sheer number of sites targeted for surveillance by the DHS is of concern, said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the EFF who wrote a blog post about the issue.
Especially noteworthy was the agency's targeting of social networks that are oriented toward people of specific ethnicities, races or social and political beliefs, she said. "The concern really is what were they looking for on those sites?" Lynch said.
In addition, while the SNMC was prohibited from collecting personally indentifiable information, it isn't immediately clear whether it was allowed to retain information such as usernames, which sometimes can reveal a lot about an individual's real identity, she said.
The documents show that the DHS planned on using openly divulged information on social networking sites for future corroboration and trend analysis.
So it's not entirely clear whether or not any information that was harvested from social networking or other sites during the inauguration period was deleted permanently after the event or was retained, she said.
The DHS's monitoring of social networking and other sites for information it considers useful is similar to the current actions of several other federal agencies. Documents obtained by the EFF via FOIA requests have previously shed light on how law enforcement agencies and the Internal Revenue Service are taking advantage of publicly posted data on social media sites to ferret out criminals and tax evaders.
The U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, which are part of the DHS, are using social media data for citizenship verification purposes. The FOIA documents obtained from the DHS by the EFF this week show that the SNMC is also being used to "observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities" when applying for U.S. citizenship.
Social networking sites give immigration agents an opportunity to identify fraud by monitoring online chatter to see if someone applying for citizenship is, for example, in a "valid relationship" with a U.S. citizen or is attempting to deceive the agency.
"In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber 'site-visit' on petitioners and beneficiaries," the documents noted.