J. D. Heyes
November 23, 2012
The Constitution’s once-solid privacy protections are about to take another hit under a new Department of Homeland Security initiative to spy on Americans via social media networks – all in the name of keeping us safe, of course.
Under the ruse of collecting and analyzing “health-related data,” DHS is testing whether scanning sites like Facebook, Twitter and others “could help identify infectious disease outbreaks, bioterrorism or other public health and national security risks,” GovInfo Security reported.
The department has spent $3 million in taxpayer money on a one-year contract with Accenture Federal Services, the firm that is actually providing the online spyware. Calling it a “biosurveillance” pilot project, the department says it will involve automatically monitoring social media sites to collect and analyze “health-related data” in real time, according to John Matchette, the managing director for Accenture’s public safety division (no word on Matchette’s thoughts regarding the constitutionality of the program his firm will help facilitate).
According to the report, the software will be designed to collect health-related keywords and other information, to include medical symptoms, that show up in online postings. Machette says the data mined will be collected and analyzed in aggregate.
“The information won’t be tracked back to the individuals who posted it,” he claimed, mindful of the constitutional issues surrounding such an operation.
Privacy advocates aren’t buying it, however.
“Even when data is in aggregate, we don’t have any clear policies around how data will be used and how it can be traced back, including if and when there are signs of an illness outbreak,” Deven McGraw, director of the health privacy project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “I think it’s a legitimate question to ask [DHS] what the guidelines are for using this data. I’d prefer they have a plan in advance for dealing with this, rather than waiting.”
As usual, no one from DHS or Accenture responded to requests by GovInfo for comment on McGraw’s concerns.
Machette said the software will be programmed to “watch for trends,” such as whether new or unusual clusters of symptoms in certain geographic regions are reported on social networking sites.
Biosurveillance efforts are expanding
The analysis of social media data is evolving and expanding, he added, noting that both recent presidential campaigns heavily data mined social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to look for trends.
Plans are to expand the surveillance effort far beyond the parameters of this initial test, officials said.
Accenture’s program will focus on analysis of social media data, but “the biosurveillance effort has underlying capabilities that could be expanded to integrate data from other sources, such as hospital emergency departments, drug distribution companies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the report said.
“This is big data analytics,” Machette told the website.
Building on prior programs
The current project is not the first biosurveillance project undertaken by DHS. The department is already analyzing data that is collected by the Atlanta-based CDC from public health departments nationwide.
Also, DHS paid a federal contractor in 2009 to monitor social media sites, to see how residents of Standish, Mich., were responding to a government proposal to move high-value terrorist prisoners there from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, The New York Times reported.
From the Times:
While it has long been known that the department monitors the Internet for information about emerging threats to public safety like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, the documents show that its Social Networking/Media Capability program, at least in an early stage, was also focused on “public reaction to major governmental proposals with homeland security implications.”
Welcome to post-constitutional America, where your rights are what the government says they are.