Homeland Security Sued Over Proposed Facebook, Twitter Monitoring

    December 29, 2011

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), has filed suit in US District Court against the Department of Homeland Security. The grounds for the suit is a refusal by DHS to reply to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by EPIC in April of this year.

According to EPIC’s press release, the center of the issue is a plan by DHS to create fake accounts on social networking sites and use those accounts to monitor the networks for certain key words – such as “drill,” “infection,” “strain,” “virus,” “trojan,” and others. The complaint was filed in the District of Columbia, and asks the court to compel DHS to process EPIC’s FOIA request, as well as to order DHS to produce the records EPIC has requested, to acknowledge EPIC as news media, and to pay EPIC’s legal bills for the suit.

The impetus for EPIC’s request was an announcement by DHS that it planned to implement a Social Media Monitoring and Situation Awareness Initiative, whereby it would monitor social media sites in order to gain realtime information on events. The DHS announcement states that the goal of the initiative is not to collect personally identifiable information except in extreme cases – e.g., a person trapped in rubble with their mobile phone who is posting their status (as happened during the Japanese tsunami).

Though at first glance – and thanks in no small part to EPIC’s description of it – the DHS program sounds awfully “Big Brother.” Upon closer reading of DHS’s actual statement, though, it seems that the goal of the program is to monitor developing situations in realtime, rather than to monitor individuals for subversive behavior.