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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Social Media Monitoring Secrecy Will Cost Feds

(CN) - After stonewalling demands about its plans to monitor social media, the Department of Homeland Security owes $30,000 in attorneys' fees, a federal judge ruled.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said Homeland Security announced plans to monitor social media sites in February 2011.

"The initiatives were designed to gather information from 'online forums, blogs, public websites, and message boards,' to store and analyze the information gathered, and then to 'disseminate relevant and appropriate de-identified information to federal, state, local, and foreign governments and private sector partners,'" according to the federal complaint filed in Washington, D.C.

"Previously, DHS had developed surveillance initiatives of public chats and other online forums concerning specific events, such as the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the April 2010 BP oil spill," EPIC also claimed.

As part of the initiative, the agency would "establish [fictitious] usernames and passwords" to spy on users and record their activities based on a number of search terms, including "human to animal," "collapse," "outbreak," and "illegal immigrants," according to the complaint.

EPIC said it had requested documents from Homeland Security in April 2011 related to third-party contractors that work on social-media monitoring. The companies included H.B. Gar Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies, according to the complaint.

After the group filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Homeland Security produced around 500 pages of documents with some redacted material, and withheld 230 documents under various exemptions.

The agency moved for summary judgment, claiming that it adequately complied with the FOIA request.

EPIC countered, however, that the agency improperly withheld seven withheld Secret Service documents, among other things.

U.S. District Judge John Bates ordered Homeland Security in March to produce six of the seven Secret Service documents in redacted form. He awarded the group attorneys' fees Friday, finding that EPIC "substantially prevailed" on its FOIA action.

While "the parties vigorously dispute the amount of fees," Homeland Security "essentially concedes EPIC is both eligible for and entitled to an award of attorney's fees and costs," Bates wrote.

The judge had harsh words for Homeland Security about its objection to certain charges EPIC requested.

"The court refuses to nitpick 'a charge of 8.5 hours ($2,040)' for what DHS called 'a 9-page boilerplate complaint for this simple, straightforward FOIA case,' Bates wrote.

"If FOIA's statutory requirements as applied to this case were so 'simple' and 'straightforward,' DHS might have been better served by complying with them - rather than by ignoring statutory deadlines and meeting their legal obligations only upon being served with a complaint in federal court," he added.

The judge reduced the amount requested by EPIC from $30,590.75 to $29,841.67, based on adjustments to hourly rates for several attorneys, and for several "excessively vague time entries."

Bates also awarded EPIC $350 in court costs.

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