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US government to scan social networks for terrorism

The United States' department of Homeland Security has begun a one year operation that will test whether it's viable to secure information on terrorists through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, by scanning user communications.

This study is being conducted in partnership with Accenture Federal Services, which has been contracted for $3 million (£1.8) million to look for key words on these sites, in real time. Bioterrorism and epidemics are high up on the list of red flags to look for. If someone appears to have an illness in one part of the country, it's thought that its progression might be trackable.

In an attempt to assuage concerns over privacy, managing director for Accenture's public safety department said (via Wired), “The information won't be tracked back to individuals who posted it.” Unless presumably that person is under investigation for potential bioterrorism. Or you're a friend of someone that is.

This all sounds like the beginning of Skynet to me

That certainly hasn't been the case in the UK however. We've seen many arrests over Twitter and Facebook posts. There was Paul Chambers who was arrested for joking about blowing up an airport and there was the recent burning of a poppy which got everyone riled up. Clearly online monitoring is not always used in an anonymous fashion. Devan McGraw, director of the health privacy project agrees:

“Even when data is in aggregate, we don't have any clear policies around how data will be used and how it can be traced back, including if and when there are signs of an illness outbreak. I think it's a legitimate question to ask [Homeland Security] what the guidelines are for using this data. I'd prefer they have a plan in advance for dealing with this, rather than waiting.”

KitGuru Says: I'm with Devan on this one. If you want to track information about people, you absolutely have to say what you plan to do with it and what safety precautions are in play. Is the data going to be stored indefinitely? Will it have hacker safeguards?

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