Stoffa: Who watches the Watchmen?

Gabriel Stoffa

Ever wonder if the government is watching you? Well, odds are fairly good Big Brother has at one point or another.

The Department of Homeland Security has released a list of hundreds of keywords and phrases that are used to monitor the Internet.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, documents were released revealing how analysts watch the web for comments that are “critical information requirements,” or CIR for short according to the department’s 2011 Analysts’ Desktop Binder. An intriguing little bit being the fourth CIR stipulation: “Identifying media reports that reflect adversely on Homeland Security and response activities.”

That boils down to the things you might type on Facebook or Twitter or your blog or any of the other social media outlets online.

While this might appear hunky-dory when looked at from the perspective of protecting the country, there are a few hitches.

For instance, you might expect the government to search for the following: dirty bomb, suicide attack, weapons cache and jihad. But do you expect the following to appear as a trigger for concern: home grown, pirates, target and attack?

Yes, all of those words can be included in what could be dangerous or problematic instances toward the protection of the United States, but those words — and many, many others you will notice after reading the list — make up a fair deal of sentences you read or type whenever you are on the Internet.

Think about the following message you might type on a friend’s Facebook wall after a Halloween evening of bar-hopping: “We dressed as pirates and slammed car bombs until I had a black out. I found out I took a leak on the subway. That wasn’t smart” — pirates, car bombs, black out, leak, subway and smart are all watched words.

Yes, those words need to be paired with other words in given situations for any action to be taken — to prevent potential threats, rather than checking for who is bitching about the government — but that isn’t what should be giving you a real fright. What you should be wondering is how the government is monitoring your posts, tweets and emails in the first place.

Does the government have access through some deal or another to all of your personal information through companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like? I cannot see any other way to monitor the Internet, so I’m guessing there is a deal. Note there is no statement stating the truth or not of that guess, but think about it for yourself.

Maybe you don’t mind being monitored when it is for a greater good. I really want to believe that if the government is looking into the folks of America’s private information that that information will not be used for other purposes than keeping us safe. But then I start to wonder about the constitutionality of it all and the tendency for some in power to abuse information and use it for purposes not originally intended, and I get that Big Brother feeling again.

“A senior Homeland Security official told the Huffington Post that the manual ‘is a starting point, not the endgame’ in maintaining situational awareness of natural and man-made threats and denied that the government was monitoring signs of dissent. However the agency admitted that the language used was vague and in need of updating. Spokesman Matthew Chandler told the website: ‘To ensure clarity, as part of … routine compliance review, Homeland Security will review the language contained in all materials to clearly and accurately convey the parameters and intention of the program,'” according to an article in Mail Online.

Well, glad to hear the methods in place are “vague and in need of updating.” And what does “review the language contained in all materials” really entail? Does “all materials” really mean everything the department has access to on the Internet? That seems mighty invasive.

All in all, this might just be nothing to be concerned about. Maybe the methods will be updated and the list of keywords will only become a fun game for Facebook posters to see who can make a sentence using the most of the watched words. But as of now, the possibility of being looked into for potential risk appears to be a reality. I guess everyone should have read their user agreements for website posting a little more carefully.

For a full run-down of the words in question, go to section 2.13 Key Words & Search Terms of the Analysts’ Desktop Binder: