Keywords Monitored by Homeland Security

Your latest Facebook update or tweet probably seems entirely innocent to you. However, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has just obtained some information that suggests that the government may be rather more interested in your social media activities than you had first imagined.

Under a Freedom of Information lawsuit, EPIC was able to force the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release 285 pages of documentation, which reveal some fascinating insights into the trends that have the government department buzzing.

Since February 2011, the DHS has targeted social media to try and stay up-to-date on events, as they happen. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have become important communication tools in a variety of situations, as the world saw during the Arab uprising in 2011 and in the UK riots later the same year. The DHS formed the Media Monitoring Capability team (MMC) to analyze and summarize the information from these sources in order to provide current operational data.

The keywords that are acting as ‘triggers’ for the MMC may not be as obvious as you might think, however. Unsurprisingly, the names of various government agencies are included such as the Border Patrol and Secret Service. Words like ‘cops’, ‘looting’, ‘bomb’ and ‘nuclear’ also appear as you might expect. What you might not have foreseen is the inclusion of apparently innocuous words such as ‘airport’, ‘subway’ and ‘power’. The names of big US cities also appear, along with weather terms such as ‘ice’, ‘flood’ and ‘twister’. Tech and social media terms also appear, such as ‘phishing’, ‘spam’ and (wait for it) ‘social media’.

How the MMC is able to decipher harmless use of those words versus suspicious activities will remain a secret, but the information has led to further criticism from EPIC over the legality of the situation. According to a report on the Mashable website, EPIC is fighting to prevent the MMC from monitoring “online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards.” EPIC argues that the activity violates both the First Amendment and the Privacy Act of 1974. Others may argue that the public nature of sites like Twitter and Facebook puts the information in the public domain anyway.

Whether the activity breaches the law will remain subject to a review by Congress, if the pressure from EPIC is enough to review the situation. That aside, should you be concerned that this is a violation of your privacy and rights? You could work on the basis that if the activity were appropriately managed by a competent, honest and sincere government then you would have nothing to worry about. As it stands, it’s really up to you to decide…