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.