Federal Contractor Monitored Social Network Sites

NY Times

The Department of Homeland Security paid a contractor in 2009 to monitor social networking sites — like Facebook, blogs and reader comments on a news article — to see how the residents of Standish, Mich., were reacting to a proposal to move detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to a local prison there, according to newly disclosed documents.

While it has long been known that the department monitors the Internet for information about emerging threats to public safety like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, the documents show that its Social Networking/Media Capability program, at least in an early stage, was also focused on “public reaction to major governmental proposals with homeland security implications.”

A department official said Friday that the social network monitoring program did not produce reports about public opinion, but instead focused exclusively on monitoring crises like hazardous material spills, shooting incidents and natural disasters.

Still, the newly disclosed documents show that in August 2009, during an early test of the program, a contractor compiled reactions among residents of Standish, Mich., to the short-lived detainee proposal. It found that most people “were opposed to the plan,” arguing it could make the community a terrorist target, but that others characterized these concerns as “hysteria.”

To produce the report about Standish, the contractor used “Facebook, Twitter, three different blogs and reader comments” on an article on The Washington Post’s Web site, highlighting “public sentiments in extensive detail,” according to a summary of the report that was included as an example in a “Social Networking/Media Capability Analyst Handbook” dated February 2010.

Asked about the Standish report on Friday, department officials provided a series of explanations. After initially accepting it as something produced by the program, an official later said the report was instead created by a contractor as a sample during a period when the social networking component of its media monitoring program was still being designed. It started on a small scale in January 2010 and expanded the following June.

Chris Ortman, a department spokesman, acknowledged that the report was included in the February 2010 handbook, but he said it was there “only as an example of a weekly report format.” No such report on public sentiment was ever distributed as a working document of the department’s National Operations Center, which runs the monitoring program, he said.

He added that the handbook had since been revised and no longer included that example because it “does not meet our operational requirements or privacy standards,” which “expressly prohibit reporting on individuals’ First Amendment activities.”

The report about Standish residents was part of nearly 300 pages of documents about the monitoring program obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Ginger McCall, director of the group’s Open Government Program, said it was appropriate for the department to use the Internet to search for emerging threats to public safety. But, she said, monitoring what people are saying about government policies went too far and could chill free speech.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of political dissent has no legal basis and is contrary to core First Amendment principles,” she said.

She also pointed out that while other sample reports in the February 2010 handbook discuss content that is inappropriate and should be removed, the Standish one does not. “This Standish report is being held up, as is, as an example that should be emulated,” she said.

While the names of blog and mainstream news sources are logged in the sample reports, the documents show that such reports — whatever their topic — are not to include personally identifying information; for example, a quotation taken from Twitter would say it came from “a Twitter user” rather than citing a specific Twitter account.

In an interview on Friday, John Cohen, the department’s principal deputy counterterrorism coordinator, said the broader media-monitoring program dated to 2006 and had evolved over time. He said that it had extensive privacy protections and that policy makers had decided that they did not want reports like Standish because they were not helpful.

“Today this capability is focused solely on rapidly identifying and obtaining information regarding events that are ongoing, and providing information that can help inform an effective response to that event,” he said, describing the reports as covering only topics like “major traffic accidents, haz-mat spills, reports regarding suspicious packages, shootings, etc.”

This week, Reuters reported on a department privacy review related to the monitoring efforts that described the news media channels the program covers. The Reuters report received significant attention after The Drudge Report, a popular news aggregation Web site, highlighted that Drudge was on the list.

Many of the newly disclosed documents relate to the department’s efforts to outsource some of its “media monitoring and social media/networking support services.” In early 2010, for example, companies seeking the contract had to spend 24 hours monitoring news media coverage.

They were asked to produce short reports about threats and hazards, as well as “any media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government and the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) ability to prevent, protect and respond, to recovery efforts or activities related to any crisis or events which impact National Planning Scenarios.”

The documents indicate that in May 2010 a procurement official awarded an $11.3 million contract to General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems.

One passage in the documents raised another question. It says the program should also compile reports about the department and other federal agencies, including “both positive and negative reports on FEMA, C.I.A., C.B.P., ICE, etc., as well as organizations outside of D.H.S.”

While most of the acronyms stand for agencies dealing with emergencies, border security and the like, “C.I.A.” usually refers to the Central Intelligence Agency. However, Mr. Ortman said it was a typo — intended as “C.I.S.,” the department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau.