There have not been many unifying issues for House Republicans and Democrats this congressional session. But, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, members of both parties took time at a Feb. 16 hearing to raise concerns with officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the agency’s approach to social media monitoring.
The House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism panel held the hearing, which sought to examine the intersection between DHS’ monitoring of social media channels and online news for real-time information on disasters and ensuring privacy for users of Twitter, Facebook and myriad other online forums.
Panel chair Patrick Meehan (R-PA) said while he understood the need for DHS to glean real-time situational awareness from social networks during a natural disaster or terrorist attack, he raised questions about the agency creating a “chilling effect” on free speech by also collecting information on the political opinions. In particular, Meehan raised concerns about DHS plans to collect information on the opinions of private citizens on government actions, including the views of Minnesota residents on plans to relocate prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the state.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), the panel’s ranking member, echoed Meehan’s concerns. “How can DHS fully exploit the benefits and opportunities of social media without impeding on the civil rights and civil liberties of those who choose to use social media?” she asked in her opening statement. “Can DHS actively and effectively monitor social media in an open and above board way without being accused of spying on lawful activities?”
Lawmaker cited concerns raised by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that the DHS program is unlawful and was used to collect and disseminate criticism of the agency. The group is calling for DHS to stop monitoring social networks for public opinion and to stop all media monitoring until appropriate safeguards can be put into place.
But two DHS witnesses assured lawmakers at the hearing that that agency was not monitoring social media in an attempt to collect data on the speech of U.S. citizens. Mary Ellen Callahan, the chief privacy officer at DHS, said the agency only uses social networks in three contexts: for external communication with the public; to be aware of breaking news and create situational awareness; and for use in law enforcement and investigation activities.
Callahan also said in all three cases the agency adheres to agency-wide standards to protect privacy. “No element of First Amendment speech is collected, disseminated or analyzed,” Callahan said in response to a line of questioning from Meehan. “We’re only reporting on the ‘what,’ not the ‘who.’”
She further added that the agency at one point considered monitoring social media networks for public reaction to government initiatives, but said it was merely “an early example of what could be possible” and said DHS never pursued the reports.
Richard Chávez, director of DHS’ Office of Operations Coordination and Planning, said the National Operations Center monitored the media to provide situational awareness to other federal agencies, which he said was “only part of the bigger [intelligence] picture.” In response to GOP questions, Chávez said the agency did not get requests from other agencies to collect information on specific individuals, adding that much of the monitoring was built around specific keywords.
Lawmaker from both sides of the aisle requested additional information on a host of topics, but did not say whether they would pursue legislation to amend DHS’ mission or privacy policies. Closing the hearing, Meehan only said the panel had “begun an important discussion” and would “continue to ask these tough questions,” noting there could be similar issues with information collection at the state level.