On April 3, 2018, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an advertisement for a contractor to help create a list of more than 290,000 journalists, editors, bloggers, social media influencers, and other media creators around the world. The database would be continuously updated and searchable by beat, location, and alleged political sentiment; it would provide instantaneous translation into English from numerous languages, including Russian and Arabic. Many journalists expressed their outrage on social media, saying that the program contained early indications of totalitarianism.
The Department of Homeland Security is a cabinet-level agency of the US government with the stated aim of ensuring “a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.” Among other efforts, it seeks to monitor both traditional and non-traditional news sources for information relevant to its work, and, in so doing, create a list of writers, editors, bloggers, and social media influencers who create this content.
The “statement of work” that DHS uploaded to FedBizOpps.gov requests “Media Monitoring Services” and outlines six specific tasks to be performed, including “Online and Social Media Monitoring” and “Media Intelligence and Benchmarking Dashboard Platform.”
Many members of the media and other public figures reacted negatively to this solicitation. One wrote on Twitter: “I’ve gotten threats of violence and death from Trump supporters. Am I to be put on the Department of Homeland Security’s list now, too, for having the audacity to criticize @realDonaldTrump in the media and my published work?” Others described the database as an attempt to “dox” them—referring to a method by which the personal information of an individual is revealed on the internet. Some, however, were less worried, including Garrett Graff, a former CNN journalist, who tweeted: “This strikes me as a totally normal and routine thing for DHS to do, and not at all Orwellian.”
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) files a FOIA request for documents relating to the statement of work
On April 10, ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security, seeking to access records regarding the April 3 statement of work, including emails, voicemails, memos, reports, and written or electronic communications. ACLU said it wanted to “provide the public with information about DHS’s monitoring of news, social media conversations, and journalists.”
Nonprofit group files lawsuit against DHS
On May 30, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group focused on privacy and civil liberties, filed a federal lawsuit against DHS, claiming the department broke federal law because it did not publish a Privacy Impact Assessment about its plan to create a “media influencer database.” The complaint also alleged other violations of federal laws and regulations by DHS.
Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20
Uploaded to tracker: December 13, 2018