Social mediaDHS developing social media monitoring guidelines

Published 3 November 2011

Given the critical role that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter played in the Arab Spring, DHS officials say they are now developing guidelines for gathering intelligence from these sources; “We’re still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source,” said DHS undersecretary Caryn Wagner; “How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?”

Given the critical role that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter played in the Arab Spring, DHS officials say they are now developing guidelines for gathering intelligence from these sources.

Beginning last December in Tunisia, social media played a major part in organizing mass protests across the Middle East that eventually toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya while civil unrest has continued in countries like Syria and Bahrain.

According to DHS undersecretary Caryn Wagner, the power of these social media tools surprised the U.S. government and raised the question of whether the United States should be doing a better job of monitoring activity on domestic networks.

We’re still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source,” she said. “How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?”

To that end, Wagner said DHS is in the midst of creating guidelines to gather information from these sites for law enforcement purposes. She was careful to note that the agency is mindful of strict privacy laws that prohibit the government from spying on U.S. citizens and DHS was working to develop rules to protect privacy like establishing the length of time the information can be stored and differences between domestic and international surveillance.

Currently DHS does not actively monitor social networks, but when the agency receives intelligence regarding a potential threat, contractors are instructed to look for specific references on “open source” Internet channels.

The task of gathering meaningful intelligence on social media sites will prove to be a challenge as rumors and incorrect information crowd the Internet, said Wagner.

I can post anything on Facebook, is that valid? If 20 people are tweeting the same thing, then maybe that is valid,” she said. “There are just a lot of questions that we are sort of struggling with because it’s a newly emerging [issue].”

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