A new approach to public surveillance is being rolled out by the US government in yet another move that pits national security against individual rights to privacy.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced it is ramping up plans to monitor social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook, and the organization is now finalizing guidelines that are designed to ensure department agents do not violate social media users’ rights to privacy while maintaining efficiency and effectiveness.
DHS officials say the move was spurred by the actions taken by social media users that helped organize and assist recent anti-government uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The positive aspects of revolution aside, IT security professionals took note that social-media site users provided a wealth of information in what is essentially a public forum.
The information available on social media sites goes far beyond the biographical. Web analytics methods typically used to measure website marketing performance could just as easily be used to measure discussion trends, find keyword similarities or track particular activities relating to a particular geographic location or political event.
Although the DHS announcement suggests this is the first time the domestic anti-terrorism organization has considered monitoring social media websites, it is not the case. Freedom of Information Act requests filed in 2010 revealed the DHS formed its Social Networking Monitoring Center (SNMC) in 2009 to monitor networking sites prior to the inauguration of President Obama. This DHS monitoring plan also included websites that catered to particular demographics, like National Public Radio, DailyKos and BlackPlanet.
Plans for the SNMC and the department’s reluctance to speak about it raised concerns over privacy then, and those concerns remain now as the DHS moves the program into the spotlight. Agency officials are quick to assure the public they are in strict compliance with privacy laws, however, and policy experts note that people should be aware by now of the somewhat public nature of networking sites and exercise discretion in their use.
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