Feb. 13, 2010 -- As the winter Olympics begin, the Department of Homeland Security has disclosed that it will be monitoring the comments and posts on websites and social media like Twitter for information on possible terror threats. Among the sites listed in a privacy impact statement filed Friday afternoon by DHS are the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, Twitter, Google and this web site, the Blotter.
The National Operations Center of DHS will watch the web for information, according to the statement, to "provide situational awareness" in the event of natural disaster, an "act of terrorism, or other manmade disaster."
"The Olympics are a potential target for such events," said the statement. The statement did not list all web sites and social media that the NOC will monitor, but provided 31 examples, many of them, like the Blotter, sites that cover breaking news, security, or terror.
DHS officials say they will not be monitoring the web sites extensively, but would use the sites as a reference and open source tool in the event of an incident or emergency. DHS officials also used the monitoring of social media sites in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake to aid rescue efforts.
In one instance a DHS employee noticed a message on a web site about a person trapped under rubble in Port-au-Prince and was able to direct a State Department team to help in the rescue.
One official told ABC News that monitoring the web sites during an emergency is like watching "a canary in a coal mine," since social media sites can have real-time information. The official said the raw information that is available on the sites can help first responders and law enforcement officials make quick assessments to help in their response to events.
The privacy report, prepared by the agency's chief privacy officer, Mary Ellen Callahan, notes, "The aggregation of data published via social media sites will likely make it possible for the NOC to provide more accurate situational awareness, a more complete common operating picture, and more timely 2010 Winter Olympics-related information for decision makers."
The statement also says that while some personally identifiable information (PII) could be obtained during the monitoring of the web sites, DHS guidelines require it to destroy the information. But the statement adds that the information is already widely available in the public domain.
One website that is not included on the DHS approved sites for monitoring is Facebook, since Facebook would require officials to log in.
While Canada is leading the security effort for the games with an estimated price tag of almost $1 billion, US law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Customs Border Protection (CBP), Coast Guard, and DHS, will be assisting with security efforts due to Vancouver's proximity to the U.S.-Canada border.
CBP previously announced that they would be expanding the number of inspection lanes on the border at the Peace Arch crossing from 8 to 10 lanes to assist with cross-border traffic during the games. DHS and the State of Washington have also established 2010 Olympics Coordination Center to help with any response efforts that would take place on the U.S. side of the border during the games.