Is the Department of Homeland Security monitoring you?

A new report by the Electronic Privacy Information Center claims the Department of Homeland Security is "specifically instructed to look for criticism of the agency and then to redirect reports." 


Jennifer Abel

Internet Culture

Published Feb 29, 2012   Updated Jun 2, 2021, 8:42 pm CDT

Pretty much anything you post on any social media site can bring you under the scrutiny of the media monitoring program employed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

That’s the simplest conclusion to reach after studying DHS documents that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) released last week.

EPIC received the 39-page document, which is titled “Department of Homeland Security National Operations Center Media Monitoring Capability Desktop Reference Binder 2011,” in response to a Freedom of Information Act request about the media monitoring program, which started in February 2011.

According to the document, the program grants the DHS the ability to leverage: “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 is the first mission component. The traditional and social media teams review a story or posting from every direction and interest, utilizing thousands of reporters, sources, still/video cameramen, analysts, bloggers and ordinary individuals on scene.”

Last week, on Feb. 23, EPIC reported: “inconsistencies in DHS’ testimony about the program. Though DHS testified that it does not monitor for public reaction to government proposals, the documents obtained by EPIC indicate that the DHS analysts are specifically instructed to look for criticism of the agency and then to redirect reports that would otherwise be circulated to other agencies.”

According to the actual DHS document, there are currently hundreds of “search terms” registering on the DHS radar, and “as natural or manmade disasters occur, new search terms may be added.”

Consider the following innocuous statements:

“I’m out sick today. Not sure if it’s stomach flu, or maybe food poisoning from undercooked pork.”

“The forecast calls for blizzard clouds over the Tri-County area. High winds are expected to cause downed power lines and blackouts.”

“Donate to the Red Cross fund for Japanese tsunami victims!”

Each statement contains multiple search terms that would potentially be flagged in a DHS search: sick, flu, food poisoning, pork, blizzard, cloud, power lines, blackout, Red Cross, and tsunami. The hundreds of various search terms are grouped into nine different categories [ampersands and plus signs lifted from the original]: DHS & other agencies; domestic security; HAZMAT & nuclear; health concern [sic] + H1N1; infrastructure security; Southwest border violence; terrorism; weather/disaster/emergency; and cyber security.

In other words, the categories cover pretty much any discussion of current events outside of professional sports and celebrity gossip. The “weather” category alone lists 41 search terms, including storm, ice, Interstate, closure, lightening [sic], warning, and watch.

The DHS social-media monitoring is not to be confused with the FBI’s plan to monitor social media, which the Dot reported last month. Nor is it to be confused with the social-media monitoring programs run by the CIA and DARPA, which focus on foreign, rather than American, social media.

Photo by Leo Reynolds

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*First Published: Feb 29, 2012, 9:23 pm CST