Government’s monitoring of social media raises privacy concerns

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We all know that sending tweets and status updates on Twitter and Facebook for the world to see can occasionally cause headaches for senders. People have been fired or penalized by their employers for posting controversial things on social networking sites.

Now it has come to light that snooping on these sites is not limited to employers, prospective employers, prying family members or jilted lovers. Since February of last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been creating accounts on blogs and social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, to scan for references to hundreds of terms the department now asserts relate to natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and which therefore are fair game for government data-mining.

Some of the “suspect” terms being monitored and analyzed by the feds might be considered appropriate targets for concern, in a very broad sense. For example, the list reportedly includes terms such as “dirty bomb” and “attack.” Many others, however, are hardly so ominous; words such as “exercise” and “task force” are included in the monitoring database. Homeland Security apparently believes that it can collect and analyze such benign words in social network communications, because they might — in a classic example of bureaucratic gobbledygook — “provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture for the federal government, and for those state, local, and tribal governments, as appropriate.”

In its public statements about this data-surfing project, the government has promised it won’t post the information it gathers or attempt to connect with other users. One would be hard-pressed to imagine these bureaucrats making such claims with a straight face, since, in the same description, they declare that any information related to a national, state or local “emergency” — which presumably would include communications containing such ominous terms as “exercise” — will be stored for up to five years.

These latest revelations are obviously of concern to privacy advocates due to the nature of the information involved and the sources from which it is being collected. This concern has led the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to probe for answers. The civil liberties group filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Homeland Security last April. The request was ignored.

Undeterred by the government’s lack of transparency, EPIC followed its FOIA request with legal action by filing a lawsuit last month. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, told ABC News, “We want to know how they’re collecting information online, what they’re collecting online and if there’s legal basis to do this.”

Moreover, as reported recently by Fox News, even though the program has been in effect for at least a year, Homeland Security is still “working on guidelines for how to gather data from Twitter and Facebook and other sites while still protecting privacy.”

The cavalier attitude with which this administration has addressed the serious privacy concerns raised by this program suggests that it has about as much interest in protecting the privacy of citizens’ personal communications as the previous administration did.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.