By Mark Hosenball
(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's command center routinely monitors dozens of popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks and news and gossip sites including the Huffington Post and Drudge Report, according to a government document.
A "privacy compliance review" issued by DHS last November says that since at least June 2010, its national operations center has been operating a "Social Networking/Media Capability" which involves regular monitoring of "publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards."
The purpose of the monitoring, says the government document, is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture."
The document adds, using more plain language, that such monitoring is designed to help DHS and its numerous agencies, which include the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, to manage government responses to such events as the 2010 earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and security and border control related to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
A DHS official familiar with the monitoring program said that it was intended purely to enable command center officials to keep in touch with various Internet-era media so that they were aware of major, developing events to which the Department or its agencies might have to respond.
The document outlining the monitoring program says that all the websites which the command center will be monitoring were "publicly available and... all use of data published via social media sites was solely to provide more accurate situational awareness, a more complete common operating pictures, and more timely information for decision makers..."
The DHS official said that under the program's rules, the department would not keep permanent copies of the internet traffic it monitors. However, the document outlining the program does say that the operations center "will retain information for no more than five years."
The monitoring scheme also features a five-page list, attached to the privacy review document, of websites the Department's command center expected to be monitoring.
These include social networking sites Facebook and My Space - though there is a parenthetical notice that My Space only affords a "limited search" capability - and more than a dozen sites that monitor, aggregate and enable searches of Twitter messages and exchanges.
Among blogs and aggregators on the list are ABC News' investigative blog "The Blotter;" blogs that cover bird flu; several blogs related to news and activity along U.S. borders (DHS runs border and immigration agencies); blogs that cover drug trafficking and cybercrime; and websites that follow wildfires in Los Angeles and hurricanes.
News and gossip sites on the monitoring list include popular destinations such as the Drudge Report, Huffington Post and "NY Times Lede Blog", as well as more focused techie fare such as the Wired blogs "Threat Level" and "Danger Room." Numerous blogs related to terrorism and security are also on the list.
Some of the sites on the list are potentially controversial. WikiLeaks is listed for monitoring, even though officials in some other government agencies were warned against using their official computers to access WikiLeaks material because much of it is still legally classified under U.S. government rules.
Another blog on the list, Cryptome, also periodically posts leaked documents and was one of the first websites to post information related to the Homeland Security monitoring program.
Also on the list are JihadWatch and Informed Comment, blogs that cover issues related to Islam through sharp political prisms, which have sometimes led critics to accuse the sites of political bias.
Also on the list are various video and photo-sharing sites, including Hulu, YouTube and Flickr.
While a DHS official involved in the monitoring program confirmed the authenticity of the list, officials authorized to speak for the Department did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Eric Walsh)