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Homeland Security has its eye on your Metro tweets, D.C. riders

March 1, 2012 - 02:30 PM
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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is monitoring social media very closely, with no better proof than the department's newly public 2011 Analyst’s Desktop Binder (with the redactions you'd imagine). Its mission includes scouring the Internet for any perceived threat — and federal officials tracking all tweets related to the D.C. Metro system. 

Homeland Security focuses on "news stories, media reports and postings on social media sites concerning Homeland Security, Emergency Management, and National Health for operationally relevant data, information, analysis, and imagery," according to the documents. Analysts track their findings in a daily log with 14 categories, which include terrorism, cyber security, fire, immigration, nuclear, and notably, transportation security. They have a Severity Chart that helps determine the urgency of these different issues bubbling to the surface of the media and social media sites they're surveying online. The government pays a contractor, Fairfax-based General Dynamics, in the millions to monitor social media, as we've learned from the hundreds of pages acquired by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and released this month.

The Homeland Security National Operations Center focuses on many, many keywords when sifting through social media. Two big ones?

"WMATA." "Metro."

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(Photo: Department of Homeland Security)

In Washington, D.C., technologically savvy riders follow and participate in the major daily discussions surrounding our transit agency through the Twitter hashtag #WMATA. Scores of tweets chronicle the state of the Metro every day, from its Metrorail delays to its alleged failings to its curiosities to its busted escalators to its accounts of new features and frustrations. It's quite an emotional, ongoing discussion, and the government is watching all of it. Homeland Security sees all the regular Twitter characters, from @FixWMATA to @GGWash to @Hell_on_wheelz to @wmataplusside.

Say hi, everybody. Uncle Sam is watching your thoughts pass by on a daily basis and has for awhile. EPIC's documents include a $1.16 million contract with General Dynamics from April 2010 to "provide media monitoring and social media/networking support services."

The keywords tracked through the Homeland Security program are legion and go far beyond "WMATA" and "Metro." Other words include: police, hostage, bomb, North Korea, worm, ricin, plume, swine, AMTRAK, delays, cocaine, subway, shootout, Islamist, tremor, and hostage. Two other major cities' transportation agencies are included among the infrastructure security keywords: BART and MARTA. A hierarchy of suspicion will accompany anything that evolves into one of the Homeland Security's "Items of Interest." The government seeks to corroborate information with media (first tier source: Washington Post, third tier: Washingtonian). The officials issue corrections if they distribute incorrect info via their "Items of Interest" as well, which is something, I guess. A February 2010 report suggests the government has looked at a broad number of social networking sites and explicitly named ones such as Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Flickr, Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Wordpress, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Livejournal.

In mid-February, Homeland Security defended their practice before Congress.

"It's not about the who," explained Homeland Security's Mary Callaghan to House representatives on Feb. 16. "it's about the what ... It's the event."

She maintains that Homeland Security is interested in providing "situational awareness" and maintains concern for people's privacy. The binder includes language about what the government isn't authorized to do: "We will not report on Private citizens no matter if they are witnesses, victims, observers or some other way connected to an event," it states.

EPIC objects to this federal program and says in a Feb. 22 letter to Congress that there's no legal basis. The organization condemns the keywords listed in the binder as "broad, vague, and ambiguous." "The search terms are in no way limited to weather disasters or terrorism related threats as DHS indicated they are. The terms that DHS has chosen to monitor," EPIC notes, "sweep in vast amounts of First Amendment protected speech that is entirely unrelated to the Department of Homeland Security's mission to protect the public against terrorism and disasters." 

What do you think, D.C.? Let your voice be heard. We know someone's listening out there, after all.

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