The wave of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that have overturned three governments in the past year have prompted the U.S. government to begin developing guidelines for culling intelligence from social media networks, a top Homeland Security official said Monday.
Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Caryn Wagner said the use of such technology in uprisings that started in December in Tunisia shocked some officials into attention and prompted questions of whether the U.S. needs to do a better job of monitoring domestic social networking activity.
"We're still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source," she said. "How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?"
Wagner said the department is establishing guidelines on gleaning information from sites such as Twitter and Facebook for law enforcement purposes. Wagner says those protocols are being developed under strict laws meant to prevent spying on U.S. citizens and protect privacy, including rules dictating the length of time the information can be stored and differences between domestic and international surveillance.
Wagner said the Homeland Security department, established after the 9/11 attacks, is not actively monitoring any social networks. But when the department receives information about a potential threat, contractors are then asked to look for certain references within "open source" information, which is available to anyone on the Internet.
The challenge, she said, is to develop guidelines for collecting and analyzing information so that it provides law enforcement officials with meaningful 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)."
Wagner was in Colorado Springs to deliver a speech at the National Symposium on Homeland Security and Defense, a conference that included defense contractors and the military.
Aside from discussing the use of technology in unrest that has led to regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, she delivered a speech that addressed the way the department operates, saying that its crucial elements include a nationwide network of 72 fusion centers that gather and analyze reports of suspicious activity, a new National Terrorism Advisory System that replaces the color coded alert system with one that provides more information about a threat, and a "See Something, Say Something" campaign that encourages citizens to report suspicious activity.
She also said another key program involves training hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers across the country in filling out suspicious activity reports.