Government Uses Outbreaks to Justify Monitoring You

Do you feel like you’re getting a cold? Want to tweet about it? The Department of Homeland Security hopes you do.

“Social media will soon be used as an early detection tool for biological attacks. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hired Accenture to conduct a one-year, $3 million test that will attempt to spot public health trends using the data available in open social networks, company officials announced Nov. 8. Such a program would serve to help solve problems like the 2001 anthrax letters, 2003 SARS outbreak, 2009 bird flu pandemic and 2011 nuclear emergency in Japan.”

First of all, if you have an open social media account, then there is no real way to avoid the creepiness of government monitoring. Public events include secret agents and bureaucrats. But is that the only way they are getting this information? The Electronic Privacy Information Center is afraid not. They write about a similar “detection tool”: “The program would be executed, in part, by individuals who established fictitious usernames and passwords to create covert social media profiles to spy on other users. The agency stated it would store personal information for up to five years.”

So if EPIC is right, the government is deceiving the public to get their computer access to your data. I know it almost sound quaint to claim the government shouldn’t lie to you. But it is true.

And what of the claim that this would “serve to help solve problems like the 2001 anthrax letters”? What are they talking about? Following the link, one finds the original culprit is Obama’s letter on the need for biosurveillance. But how would monitoring social media help that? Is the perp expected to mention on FaceBook how he got his death letters to the Post Office on time? Hospitals and doctors already have directions and procedures for reporting outbreaks. Nothing in this new “tool” makes any sense as a way of improving what we already have in place.

The best possible interpretation is that when Departments have loads of tax money, they have to find a way to spend it all to request a bigger budget the following year. But I suspect the situation is worse. As the story reports,

“A similar program led by the DHS, which attempts to use social networks to identify terrorist plots, caused some House members to sue the DHS over perceived Fourth Amendment violations. The DHS, however, contended that standards were in place to protect the privacy of the innocent. The collection of personal information was only for a narrowly defined group of people, DHS officials said in testimony, and the information was publicly available to begin with.”

I guess we have to trust them about their “standards” and their “narrowly defined group.” After all, we aren’t permitted access to what they are doing except to accept what they are telling us they are doing. But how can “biosurveillance” be restricted to a “narrowly defined group of people”? It can’t. It isn’t. The new rationale, however flimsy, only works if everyone is tracked.

The most obvious reason for this program is as PR for the Federal Voyeur. The Department of Homeland Security just wants to keep us all safe and needs to monitor all our social media accounts because every time we tweet about a cough or sneeze, they can save lives.

Once again, Big Sister is Watching You. And it is for your own good. Just trust her.