EPIC is pursuing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for information about the agency’s surveillance of social networks and news organizations.
In February 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the agency planned to implement a program that would monitor media content, including social media data. The proposed initiatives would gather information from “online forums, blogs, public websites, and messages boards” and disseminate information to “federal, state, local, and foreign government and private sector partners.” The program would be executed, in part, by individuals who established fictitious usernames and passwords to create covert social media profiles to spy on other users. The agency stated it would store personal information for up to five years.
EPIC’s FOIA Request
In April 12, 2011, EPIC submitted a FOIA request to the DHS seeking agency records detailing the media monitoring program.The request sought the following documents:
All contracts, proposals, and communications between the federal government and third parties, including, but not limited to, H.B. Gary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and/or Berico Technologies, and/or parent or subsidiary companies, that include provisions concerning the capability of social media monitoring technology to capture, store, aggregate, analyze, and/or match personally-identifiable information.
All contracts, proposals, and communications between DHS and any states, localities, tribes, territories, and foreign governments, and/or their agencies or subsidiaries, and/or any corporate entities, including but not limited to H.B. Gary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and/or Berico Technologies, regarding the implementation of any social media monitoring initiative.
All documents used by DHS for internal training of staff and personnel regarding social media monitoring, including any correspondence and communications between DHS, internal staff and personnel, and/or privacy officers, regarding the receipt, use, and/or implementation of training and evaluation documents.
All documents detailing the technical specifications of social media monitoring software and analytic tools, including any security measures to protect records of collected information and analysis.
All documents concerning data breaches of records generated by social media monitoring technology.
Noting the extraordinary public interest in the plan and the public’s right to comment on the measures, EPIC asked the DHS to expedite the processing of its request.
On April 28, 2011, the agency acknowledged receipt of EPIC’s FOIA request, but denied the request for expedited processing and did not make any substantive determination regarding the FOIA request. The DHS did not disclose any records in response to EPIC’s FOIA request. On May 18, 2011, EPIC appealed the DHS’s failure to make a timely substantive determination as well as the agency’s denial of EPIC’s expedited processing request. The DHS failed to respond to EPIC’s administrative appeal and failed to disclose any records.
EPIC’s FOIA Lawsuit
On December 20, 2011, EPIC filed a lawsuit against the DHS to compel the disclosure of documents relating to the agency’s media monitoring program.
In January 2012, the DHS disclosed 285 pages of agency records in response to EPIC’s FOIA lawsuit.
EPIC’s FOIA request and lawsuit forced disclosure of the following records concerning the DHS’s media monitoring program:
January 2012 Disclosure – 285 pages (including contracts, price estimates, Privacy Impact Assessment, and communications concerning DHS Media Monitoring program)
EPIC’s FOIA lawsuit forced the DHS to disclose 285 pages of records. The documents include contracts, price estimates, Privacy Impact Assessment, and communications concerning DHS Media Monitoring program. These records make public, for the first time, details of the DHS’s efforts to spy on social network users and journalists.
The records reveal that the DHS is paying General Dynamics to monitor the news. The agency instructed the company to monitor for “[media] reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities.”
The DHS is attempting to “capture public reaction to major government proposals.”
The DHS instructed the social media monitoring company to generate “reports on DHS, Components, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS.”
One of the example social network monitoring summaries is titled “Residents Voice Opposition Over Possible Plan to Bring Guantanamo Detainees to Local Prison-Standish MI.” The report summarizes dissent on blogs and social networking cites, quoting commenters.
The DHS instructed the company to “Monitor public social communications on the Internet.” The records list the websites that will be monitored, including the comments sections of [The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, Wired, and ABC News.]”