Big Brother Is Reading

Social Issues – Have you ever had that creepy feeling that someone is watching you as you sit alone and update your social media status from your smart phone about how high gas prices are, how you have the flu, the latest reports on the nutter from North Korea, your vacation in San Diego, how unreliable the Metro is, or even the incident at the club the night before that turned into a total disaster? Well, if you have, your feelings are probably justified because some of these words are on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “ping” list.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog group, has released a copy of the DHS manual that lists “hundreds of key words” and “search terms used to detect possible terrorism, unfolding natural disasters and public health threats.” EPIC obtained the manual after it successfully “filed a Freedom of Information Act request and then sued to obtain the release of the documents.”

Though the 39-page “Analyst’s Desktop Binder” includes words that should raise alarms, such as shooting, militia, hostage — (you get the picture, I’m already on the radar for being a reporter and using those words constantly), it also includes innocuous words like the eight I put in the first paragraph. Just in case you missed them: smart, gas, flu, North Korea, San Diego, Metro, incident, and disaster.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, EPIC stated, “these terms and others are ‘broad, vague and ambiguous’ and include vast amounts of First Amendment protected speech that is entirely unrelated to the Department of Homeland Security mission to protect the public against terrorism and disasters.”

Although some contend that DHS monitors social media looking for comments that “reflect adversely on the federal government,” Mary Ellen Callahan, the chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, and Richard Chavez, director for the National Operations Center, “testified that the released documents were outdated and that social media was monitored strictly to provide situational awareness and not to police disparaging opinions about the federal government.” (did you catch that “strictly to” there?)

According to the Huffington Post who spoke with a “senior Homeland Security official, on the condition of anonymity” the manual “‘is a starting point, not the endgame’ in maintaining situational awareness of natural and man-made threats,” and that the instructions in the manual that direct analysts to “‘identify media reports that reflect adversely on the DHS and response activities,’ was not aimed at silencing criticism but at spotting and addressing problems.’”

“To ensure clarity, as part of … routine compliance review, DHS will review the language contained in all materials to clearly and accurately convey the parameters and intention of the program,” agency spokesman Matthew Chandler told HuffPost.

Still, there are several words on the list that raise an eyebrow or two when looking at the manual, and even though the agency has said that the material “is in need of updating,” to clarify some of the vague terms, one has to wonder if EPIC is right in its assessment of the manual, especially in light of all the SOPA, ACTA, and PIPA activity going on, not to mention the FBI’s proposed social network monitoring system.

Read the “Analyst Desktop Binder here.

Watch as Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence questions witnesses at a hearing entitled: “DHS Monitoring of Social Networking and Media: Enhancing Intelligence Gathering and Ensuring Privacy.”

Read more at Huffington Post.