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Homeland Security office OKs efforts to monitor threats via social media

A little-known privacy office in the Department of Homeland Security has given its stamp of approval to an ongoing initiative aimed at monitoring social media sites for emerging threats.

Congress created the department’s privacy office in 2003 to review major initiatives and databases and make certain those initiatives respected the rights of Americans, while also enabling homeland security officials to better collect and share information about possible terrorism and criminal suspects.

The department first began experimenting with the possibility of social media monitoring in 2010 with pilot programs that targeted public reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The privacy office has since conducted compliance reviews every six months, with the most recent assessment [PDF] published last week.

Although the pilot programs were narrow in focus, privacy and civil liberties groups have long worried that the department’s monitoring would expand to all online speech with no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred.

As Americans turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with one another, intelligence officials are looking for ways to harness that ocean of data and convert it into actionable information.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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Private tech companies pitch Web surveillance tools to police

Private tech firms have found a new market for their sophisticated software capable of analyzing vast segments of the Internet – local police departments looking for ways to pre-empt the next mass shooting or other headline-grabbing event.

Twitter, Facebook and other popular sites are 24-hour fire hoses of raw information that need an automated tool for deciding what’s important and what is not. So technology companies are pushing products at law enforcement conferences, in trade publications and through white papers that promise to help police filter the deluge for terrorists, traffickers, pedophiles and rioters.

In the process, privacy advocates and other critics fear these tools – once reserved for corporate branding – could ensnare Internet users who happen to be at the wrong cyberspace destination at the wrong time.

Some 400 million tweets now flow across the Web every day, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in June. Facebook today reportedly boasts more than 900 million users, each pumping out a ceaseless stream of family photos, relationship updates, political manifestos, impulsive reactions to celebrity news and even criminal confessions.


It’s increasingly clear that random keyword searches for “burn,” “collapse,” “public health” and “cloud” – among dozens of terms the Department of Homeland Security considers worth monitoring – won’t produce actionable intelligence when hunted on crude and readily available tools like TweetDeck. “Cocaine” as a search term will net more tweets about Charlie Sheen than plans for the Sinaloa cartel’s next illicit shipment.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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Facebook seeks exemption from ad disclosures

Palo Alto-based social networking giant Facebook is seeking an exemption to rules that would require political advertisements on the site to disclose the source of their funds, according to a letter submitted to federal regulators by company attorneys.

The letter, first obtained by Talking Points Memo, argues that limits on the size of Facebook ads makes including required disclosure language impractical. Federal campaign regulations require political advertising to disclose who paid for and authorized it, but the Federal Election Commission has allowed exceptions in certain cases.

Facebook is seeking an exemption similar to those that apply to bumper stickers, text messages, buttons and other small items. Ads on the social networking site are limited to a 25-character title and 135 characters of body text, according to the memo. A disclaimer (think “Paid for by Obama for America”) can take up a significant amount of that space.

The debate over disclosure in small online advertisements, such as search ads and tweets, has been a hot topic over the last year.

After a months-long debate last fall, the elections commission ruled that the ubiquitous short text ads served by Google should be exempt from disclosure because their length would make including disclaimers impractical.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates political advertising in California, came down on the side of more stringent disclosure in a set of recommendations released last fall.

With FPPC Internet rules on horizon, Brown and Whitman experiment online

Who are Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown? Depends who you ask.

Jerryfails.com would have you believe Brown’s life amounts to nothing but “a career politician with a legacy of broken promises and failure.” Meg-a-Myths.com barely stops short of calling Whitman a pathological liar, with Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford explaining the site exists because “Whitman is either incapable or unwilling to tell the truth about Jerry Brown, California or herself. If she won’t, we will.”

Unveiling his Myths website last week marked Brown’s first foray into specialized campaign websites outside of his main jerrybrown.org page, and the most recent in a long string of campaign websites rolled out by the candidates – the vast majority from Whitman’s camp.


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GRAPHIC: When did Brown and Whitman launch all these websites?

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have unrolled a string of campaign websites targeted at specific audiences since spring 2010. This timeline should help sort out when candidates first launched their specialized websites.

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have been cranking out websites targeted at specific audiences since spring 2010. This timeline should help sort out when and where candidates first launched their specialized online campaigns.



Filed under: Money & Politics


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Social media ramps up California Watch distribution

The California Watch newsroom was buzzing Tuesday – even more than usual. News broke that Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had released an oversight report highlighting questionable stimulus projects – a $175 million award to BP chief among them.

That BP had received this money came as no surprise to us; we were set to publish Will Evans’ comprehensive look at the project and federal grant on Sunday.

In light of the breaking news, we decided to move early – and had our biggest traffic day since February. Our editors here opened the door to media partners to publish the article by 4 p.m. PDT, and we immediately began reaching out to bloggers and news outlets as well as Facebook and Twitter users.

Filed under: Inside the Newsroom
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