- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Department of Homeland Security monitors social media websites such as Twitter for breaking news of major disasters or other events, but generally doesn’t collect information about the people who post on them, officials said Thursday.

“It’s the what, not the who, that we are concerned with,” Mary Ellen Callahan, Homeland Security’s chief privacy officer, told a congressional hearing.

Ms. Callahan sought to allay lawmakers’ concerns about the department’s monitoring of social media, which she said is done principally to check for breaking news of disasters or attacks and as part of the agency’s outreach and public communications efforts.

“No element of First Amendment-protected speech is collected, disseminated or analyzed,” she told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.

Ms. Callahan said the agency would collect and store only personal information that was publicly available, and then only about public figures such as TV anchors, to help determine the credibility of their reporting, or about individuals who were in “life-or-death” situations, where it might be used to get them help.

“I am deeply troubled,” Rep. Jackie Speier of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said, referring to agency documents about the social media monitoring program that were released under the Freedom of Information Act this year.

Ms. Callahan said the documents, which show the department collecting information about “[news] reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities,” were from a pilot program and do not reflect the agency’s current activities or its contractor, General Dynamics.