As reported by Wired, the agency has commissioned a $3 million one-year contract to Accenture Federal Services to scan the social network sites in real time, and flag up keywords that may help reveal if there is a trend to mentions of health related posts. The agency says it will then be able to conduct a threat analysis on the data.
In other words, if you post a status update saying you have a bad cold, it will be analysed by software that can sift out the same kind of posts from individuals in locations near to you. Specific ailments could be related to a viral outbreak or a bio-terror attack, according to the DHS. The agency claims such information could be used to slow the spread of disease, develop early warning systems and help advise emergency services.
John Matchette, managing director for Accenture’s public safety department, said “In theory, social media analytics would have shown timely indicators for multiple past biological and health-related events.” However, Matchette admitted to Wired that the method is completely unproven.
Accenture says that its software with also constantly scan blogs and websites for similar postings.
Obviously, having Big Sis Janet Napolitano’s federal government agency knowing what kind of ailments you are suffering from will be of concern to those who value privacy, particularly given the agency’s track record on such matters.
“The information won’t be tracked back to individuals who posted it,” Matchette stated. However, many are skeptical of such claims.
“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 Centre for Democracy and Technology, told WebProNews.
“I think it’s a legitimate question to ask [Homeland Security] what the guidelines are for using this data. I’d prefer they have a plan in advance for dealing with this, rather than waiting.” he added.
The DHS provided a statement that claimed it is already monitoring information posted on “certain heavily trafficked social media sites”, and that it doesn’t trace the information back to individuals except “with very narrow exceptions”.
The DHS is already being sued over the issue of monitoring social networking websites. Last year it was revealed that the DHS had created fake accounts on social networking sites and used those accounts to monitor the networks for certain key words – such as “drill,” “infection,” “strain,” “virus,” “trojan,” and others.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit against the DHS when the agency refused to reveal details of the program, claiming that the department has violated the first amendment and constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
In January of this year, it was also revealed that in early 2010 contractors were asked to spend 24 hours monitoring news media coverage on popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks, as well as news sites including the Huffington Post and The Drudge Report.
The contractors were required to provide the DHS with feedback on any potential “threats and hazards”, as well as “any media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government and the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) ability to prevent, protect and respond, to recovery efforts or activities related to any crisis or events which impact National Planning Scenarios.”
DHS documents, obtained by EPIC, also stated that the program should highlight “both positive and negative reports on FEMA, C.I.A., C.B.P., ICE, etc., as well as organizations outside of D.H.S.”
The documents obtained by EPIC indicate that following the exercise, a procurement official awarded an $11.3 million contract to General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems in order to carry out the monitoring on a “24/7/365 basis”.
“The language in the documents makes it quite clear that they are looking for media reports that are critical of the agency and the U.S. government more broadly,” said McCall. “This is entirely outside of the bounds of the agency’s statutory duties.” said EPIC director Ginger McCall.
As we have also previously reported, The DHS has openly announced that it is actively monitoring social media for signs of “social unrest”, in a bid to pre-empt any sign of social dislocation within the United States.
Back in August, we also revealed documents released under the Freedom of Information Act indicating that Big Sis was monitoring political opposition to the See Something, Say Something campaign, as well as tracking Infowars stories and user comments on a myriad of other issues while categorizing the website as “Right Wing Terrorism”.