American Homeland Security to Amp Up Social Media Intelligence

What do the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East mean for United States social media users? It could mean that big brother will be paying more attention to tweets and status updates as Homeland Security reviews social media guidelines.

What do the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East mean for United States social media users? It could mean that big brother will be paying more attention to tweets and status updates as Homeland Security reviews social media guidelines.

2011 has seen many uprisings all over the world including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and all of these revolutions have seen social media – social networks such as Twitter and Facebook in particular – play a significant role. From Twitter to YouTube, social media has played an essential part in rallying, organizing, and ultimately overthrowing, governments this year. Many argue that social media has given a voice to the people, particularly in countries where official media outlets are controlled by the government. Through social media, people can spread information within their country or region as well as to the international community.

However, these uprisings have also impacted the United States. The National Symposium on Homeland Security and Defense conference held in Colorado Springs discussed homeland security and social media amongst other topics such as defense contractors and the military. When it came to social media, the take home message was: we don’t have a concrete plan in place, but we will soon.

According to Caryn Wagner, Undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States needs to do a better job of monitoring in-country social networking activity but it’s not an easy task. Wagner notes: “We’re still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source.” She continued, “How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?”

Wagner said that the Department of Homeland Security is creating new guidelines on gathering information from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as it pertains to law enforcement. She was quick to note that the guidelines are being created under laws designed to prevent spying on United States citizens. She further emphasized that the Department of Homeland Security has respected, and will continue to respect, United States citizens’ right to privacy. To do so, the new guidelines will include rules that determine how long information can be stored. The guidelines will also clearly establish the differences between domestic and international forms of surveillance.

As of now, the Homeland Security department does not actively monitor social media networks; however, in the case of a potential threat, Homeland Security will look for information within “open source” information, available to anyone n the Internet.

Wagner notes that one of the major difficulties lies in establishing what qualifies as intelligence. “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).”

And, of course, there’s the issue of paperwork. Wagner notes that a key part of the program involves training hundreds of thousands of officers across the United States about how to fill out suspicious activity reports.