DHS defends media-monitoring database, calls critics “conspiracy theorists”

Enlarge / Tinfoil hats, you say?
DHS/Sam Machkovech

Earlier this week, Bloomberg Law uncovered a Department of Homeland Security job listing for a “media monitoring services” request to keep tabs on over 290,000 “global news sources” and develop an extensive database for an unconfirmed number of “media influencers.” After news outlets reported about the amount of data sought by this job listing, DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton issued a response on Friday to verify its legitimacy and allege that the data project’s aims will be “standard practice.”

What’s more, Houlton added, “Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tinfoil hat-wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”

DHS’s contract listing, posted on Tuesday, seeks a firm to deliver “media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers,” for a span ranging from one to five years, all with the aim of tracking “any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.” Part of that data-combing effort would include the development of a “database” that gathers intel about “journalists, editors, correspondents, social media influencers, bloggers, etc.,” including locations, beats, reporter “types,” contact details, overviews of each “influencer’s” previous coverage, current publications, and “any other information that could be relevant.”

The firm would also be expected to deliver an app-based framework that DHS staffers could use to parse “online articles and social media conversations” and/or receive automatic alerts through internal smartphone alerts, SMS, email, or Whatsapp messages. DHS only specifies “password protection” for this app’s security protocol, as opposed to any additional data or networking safeguards.

In spite of Houlton’s aggressive response, which was sent to press who’d asked the DHS for comment about the contract, Bloomberg’s report didn’t include an implication of why or how the contracted job would play out—other than to point out the Trump administration’s use of “fake news” as a frequent qualifier and the US Senate’s recent interest in flagging Al Jazeera as a foreign agent.

The news follows Obama administration efforts, spearheaded largely by the Department of Justice, to seize journalists’ emails using the Espionage Act, increase surveillance pressure on journalists, and prosecute leakers of classified secrets.

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