Thanks to our old buddy the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of Homeland Security has released a long list of keywords it uses to monitor the internet for information about natural disasters and terrorist attacks. “Monitor the internet for information” sounds a lot better than “spy on you,” which is what DHS might be accused of doing were their words not so stupid. Wave, drill, and infection all make the list, which means I am now caught in the dragnet for last week’s sentence, If this recent wave of infections doesn’t clear up soon, I’m going to drill a hole in Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. That’s what my type of internet radical is into—being super-pissed at the DoT. We’re everywhere.
The DHS list emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which criticizes the terms for being too broad and ambiguous. In a letter to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, EPIC notes that the keywords implicate “vast amounts of First Amendment protected speech that is entirely unrelated to the Department of Homeland Security mission to protect the public against terrorism and disasters.” Pork is on there, along with electric. So is maritime domain awareness, lest you think that DHS is limiting its keyword-triggered surveillance to terms everybody uses. They’re also looking for words nobody uses.
In theory, the Department’s broad monitoring of the internet for these words will “provide awareness” of potential threats, including not just terrorism but “unfolding natural disasters.” The notion that DHS might learn about, say, an approaching tidal wave by watching Facebook for help, watch and Tsunami Warning Center is horrifying, but maybe not so horrifying as the agency’s record in dealing with actual events. So far there’s been Hurricane Katrina (large portion of major city destroyed) and the Squid Warlord Invasion (land-dwellers’ memories erased,) neither of which went much better than they would have if we had no Department of Homeland Security. In the Terrorist Attacks Thwarted column, we have a drawing of a butt. These services cost the American people $57 billion a year.
The DHS’s absurd list of keywords highlights the degree to which the agency serves a purely psychological function. Like the word Homeland in its name, the Department of Homeland Security is the country’s attempt to change its circumstances by thinking differently about itself. It was consecrated in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks “to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism,” but how it might do that—to say nothing of how it might do so differently from the FBI, FEMA and Coast Guard—has never been clear. I can think of no better symbol of the agency’s vagueness and redundancy than this list of internet words related to disasters.
Meanwhile, Mormons in Langley are reading your Facebook posts. It’s hard to say what these search terms are going to accomplish in the ongoing struggle against terrorism/natural disasters, but they offer a pretext for a federal agency to track and monitor individual Americans’ use of social networking sites. Probably, no one at DHS cares what you think of Barack Obama any more than your Facebook friends do. But the agency’s Analyst’s Desktop Binder instructs DHS employees to “identify ‘media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities.'” If nothing else, the Department of Homeland Security is combing the internet for criticism of the Department of Homeland Security.
I don’t have a comprehensive list, but the history of domestic security agencies that compile data on people who speak out against them is spotty at best. It is a fact that the DHS has not prevented any major terrorist attacks. It is also fact, apparently, that the agency tasked with “ensuring a homeland that is safe” considers it a part of its mission to conduct keyword-based surveillance of the most significant media of our time. Given the scope of that undertaking, its unprecedented nature, and the evident incompetence with which the DHS is executing it, I think we are justified in asking what Homeland Security has given us for our trouble.