DHS tries monitoring social media for signs of biological attacks


The $3 million yearlong test follows the July release of a White House strategy to modernize biosurveillance.

The Homeland Security Department has commissioned Accenture to test technology that mines open social networks for indications of pandemics, according to the vendor.

The $3 million, yearlong “biosurveillance” program will try to instantaneously spot public health trends among the massive amount of data that citizens share online daily, company officials said in announcing the deal Thursday.

The business case for the new DHS program has not been proved yet, Accenture officials acknowledged. “Our pilot program seeks to prove this case,” said John Matchette, Accenture managing director for U.S. public safety. “In theory, social media analytics would have shown timely indicators for multiple past biological and health-related events.”

In July, President Obama issued a national strategy for biosurveillance that directs federal agencies to think outside the box in detecting incidents. “Consider social media as a force multiplier that can empower individuals and communities to provide early warning and global situational awareness,” the guidelines stated.

The strategy cites a number of recent threats to underscore the need for innovative biosurveillance, including the 2001 anthrax letters, 2003 SARS outbreak, 2009 bird flu pandemic and2011 Japan nuclear emergency.

Arlington, Va.-based Accenture and DHS will develop a model to “manage, link and analyze data from social media networks in real time to better inform and protect the public in the event of a national health emergency such as an infectious disease outbreak or a biological attack,” company officials stated. Homeland Security will examine information available through various outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs, company officials added.

All information “channels are yet to be defined,” Matchette said later.

This is not the first time Homeland Security has tracked social media in the interest of public safety. One ongoing project has sparked a lawsuit and vexed some House members.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued DHS for records on search terms and technical tools that officials are using to scour social networks, blogs and online comment threads for terrorist threats. The effort is expected to be undertaken “by individuals who established fictitious usernames and passwords to create covert social media profiles to spy on other users,” the center’s website states. At a February congressional hearing, House Homeland Security Committee members told DHS officials they worried about the program violating citizens’ free speech and constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

Written testimony from DHS officials stated the department enforces standards to safeguard privacy. Using publicly available search engines and content aggregators, the department reviews information already “accessible on certain heavily trafficked social media sites” for data to establish a common operating picture, without monitoring individuals’ comments or collecting personal information -- “with very narrow exceptions,” the officials said.

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