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Is Homeland Security Watching You Online?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on January 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.

Are George Orwell's fears of a governmental "Big Brother" from his novel 1984 coming true now? Well, let's hope not, but read on.

Recent press has reported on a particular government document: a Privacy Compliance Review issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in late 2011. The document reveals that the DHS command center regularly monitors social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, popular sites like Hulu, controversial sites including WikiLeaks, and news and commentary sites like Drudge Report and The Huffington Post.

The Privacy Compliance Review notes that since mid-2010, DHS' National Operations Center has implemented a "Social Networking/Media Capability." This includes routine monitoring of "publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards," according to news reports.

The motivation for the monitoring is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture," the government document says.

But what does that mean?

Well, the Privacy Compliance Review states that the monitoring assists DHS and other agencies in managing responses to world events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and border control for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.

Websites subject to monitoring are "publicly available," the DHS report states. The monitored information helps in terms of "situation awareness," "more complete operating pictures," and "more timely information for decision makers."

The document also insists that DHS will not keep permanent copies of monitored Internet traffic; however, DHS notes that it can retain information for up to five years.

So, do you feel warm, cozy and safe right now? On the one hand, you may feel assured that DHS is trying to stay on top of its game with respect to "situational awareness." You may also feel comforted that the traffic being monitored is "publicly available" and will not be maintained permanently by DHS.

On the other hand (and there always is another hand), you might be a little less happy to know that your online movements and communications on certain websites may be monitored by the government. Do you really know for sure how that information will be used? You may be concerned that something you say online could be misconstrued, potentially to your disadvantage vis-à-vis the government.

Perhaps there needs to be an even more open dialogue concerning the government's monitoring of websites.

Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP ( where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is and he can be reached at To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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