Published December 24, 2011
A privacy advocacy group is suing the Department of Homeland Security for information about an emerging program designed to monitor social media activity.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, claiming the "legal authority for the DHS program remains unclear," went to federal court in Washington, D.C., this past week to try and compel the department to turn over documents on the initiative.
Though still in development, DHS is looking to establish a system for monitoring "forums, blogs, public websites and message boards." The idea is to gather and analyze publicly available information, and then use that information to help officials respond to disasters and other situations.
But the program has raised flags among privacy groups like EPIC, which this past April filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records -- a request the group's lawsuit claims DHS has not honored.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday expressed concern that information DHS gathers could be stored for up to five years and shared, noting that Internet users "routinely" post personal information in online communications and "have no reason to believe that the Department of Homeland Security is tracking their every post."
The document request was initially prompted in part by reports that a private company had floated proposals for tapping into social media and sabotaging certain activists. According to EPIC's original request, the company reportedly had set up a training session with DHS in 2010.
EPIC in April asked DHS for information about any contact with the company, but also records on "all contracts, proposals and communications" between DHS and other governments or private companies, as well as documents on training and software pertaining to the social media monitoring program.
The program was formally announced in February. DHS claimed it was not looking to actively gather private information but would create a system to monitor and gather other information online to help with "situational awareness."
A Homeland Security official told The Associated Press in October that the department was still working on guidelines for how to gather data from Twitter and Facebook and other sites while still protecting privacy. The official said the department is not actively monitoring sites but does ask contractors to monitor when they receive information about a threat.
In its lawsuit, EPIC claimed DHS has not produced any documents since the April request, and urged the court compel the department to turn over records within 10 days of a decision.
A representative with the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the suit.