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Even if it’s nothing, the new Homeland Security press tracker could turn into something

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  1. Newsgathering
Late last week, Bloomberg Law reported on a contract solicitation at the Department of Homeland Security for a “media monitoring”…

Late last week, Bloomberg Law reported on a contract solicitation at the Department of Homeland Security for a “media monitoring” service that would track almost 300,000 news sources globally, in more than 100 languages. According to the bid, DHS wants the ability to track “media influencers,” to query the database for all coverage related to DHS or “a particular event” and to follow social media conversations. The desired database would also be able to categorize coverage by “sentiment.”

Many are concerned, especially in light of the Trump administration’s ongoing denigration of critical news stories as “fake news” and fear that the president would seek to misuse various levers of power such as merger review or “leaks” investigations against perceived enemies in the press.

In response to questions about the story, DHS’s press secretary unhelpfully tweeted that any suggestion that this is somehow out of the ordinary or a threat to press freedom, is “fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”

We don’t know much. But the right answer here may be that, even if this is nothing now, it may end up being something. That is, while it is certainly true that the public and private sector routinely use large media relations databases to track coverage and identify press opportunities, if used for other purposes or if integrated into law enforcement or intelligence databases, this may still be in the realm of Orwell.

First, there are a couple of potentially troubling aspects of the proposal itself.

Notably, the solicitation here was issued not by the main press office at DHS, but by a component that is actively engaged in the business of national security—the National Protection and Programs and Directorate.

The NPPD is one of the more significant government agencies you’ve never heard of. It’s the main civilian cybersecurity authority. It is responsible for coordinating with the private sector to secure critical infrastructure, and has an “all-hazards” analysis office that provides intelligence to DHS leadership on cyber threats. And it provides DHS’s fingerprint and other biometric services for customs and immigration purposes. Though there may be a good administrative reason, one still has to ask why NPPD would house this comprehensive media monitoring database.

Moreover, DHS issued the media monitoring solicitation at the same time the agency is developing the National Vetting Center (as in “extreme” vetting). Formed by presidential order in February, the NVC will centralize vetting in the immigration context, and has a broad mandate to serve as a clearinghouse for various sources of intelligence. Will this media monitoring database hook into the information sharing element of the NVC? Quite possibly. Will it be used to exclude journalists or activists on ideological grounds? While brazen ideological exclusion would violate the First Amendment, the database could be used in more subtle ways to retaliate against critics of the administration.

Further, government databases like this one are inherently sensitive. There are numerous laws on the books that prevent the government from collecting dossiers on political activity. The Privacy Act of 1974, for instance, was passed following Watergate and the use of various law enforcement and intelligence agencies to track and harass President Nixon’s political enemies. Conservatives, in particular, remember that Nixon used the IRS to go after his enemies.

As described in the solicitation, this press tracker would categorize reporters and stories based on “sentiment” and DHS has requested that the tracker collect all past stories and other coverage by a particular reporter or outlet in one place. The tracker would also track social media—apparently in “real time”—where reporters and talking heads are often quite critical of the government.  That does sound like a database of reporters that could be queried to find, for instance, all stories critical of President Trump’s immigration policies.

To be clear, none of this is to say the solicitation for a media monitoring service at DHS is per se a threat to free speech. But, far more mundane things—like the IRS—have been used to infringe on personal privacy, press freedoms and free speech. At the very least, the “tin foil” comment by DHS’s press secretary is inappropriately dismissive of our growing concerns. Even if nothing now, this could easily turn into something bad. We need to know more.