An electronic rights advocacy group is expressing concern over what it contends was an overly broad surveillance of social networking sites conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the days leading up to last year's presidential inauguration.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently obtained documents pertaining to the DHS' monitoring of social networking sites through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit .
The documents show that the DHS established a Social Network Monitoring Center (SNMC) last year to scoursocial sites for signs of potential security threats during the presidential inauguration.
SNMC's other surveillance targets included news sites such as NPR, CNN's iReport, and DailyKos, a site that specializes in political commentary.
Throughout the inauguration period, the SNMC was tasked with looking for "items of interest" in posts pertaining to events, organizations and activities. The SNMC was to then conduct an analysis of the data it gathered and create a summary and exception report based on observed trends over a 24-hour period.
The DHS documents make it explicitly clear that the SNMC was prohibited from collecting or storing personally identifiable information such as names, e-mail address and IP addresses.
Even so, the sheer number of sites targeted for surveillance by DHS is of concern, said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the EFF who posted a blog on the issue .
Especially noteworthy was the agency's targeting of social networks that are oriented towards specific ethnicities, race or social and political beliefs, she said. "The concern really is what were they looking for on those sites?" Lynch said.
In addition, while SNMCs privacy rules prohibited it from collecting personally indentifiable information, it isn't immediately clear if it was allowed to retain information such as usernames, which sometimes can reveal a lot about an individual's real identity, she said.
The documents show that the DHS planned on using openly divulged information on social networking sites for future corroboration and trend analysis.
So it's not entirely clear whether or not any information that was harvested from social networking or other sites during the inauguration period was deleted permanently after the event or was retained, she said.
The DHS' monitoring of social networking and other sites for information it considers useful is similar to that being conducted by several other federal agencies. Documents obtained by the EFF via FOIA requests have previously shed light on how law enforcement agencies and the Internal Revenue Service are taking advantage of publicly posted data on social media sites to ferret out criminals and tax evaders.
The DHS' U.S. Customs and Immigration Services is using social media data for citizenship verification purposes. The FOIA documents obtained from the DHS by the EFF this week shows that the SNMC is also being used to "observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities" when applying for U.S. citizenship.
Social networking sites give immigration agents an opportunity to identify fraud by monitoring their online chatter to see if they are in a "valid relationship" with a U.S. citizen or are attempting to deceive the agency.
"In essence, using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber 'site-visit' on petitioners and beneficiaries," the documents noted.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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