The Department of Homeland Security Wants to Friend You?

First the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does away with color-coded terror alerts. Then Janet Napolitano tells Congress that the terror threat is at an all-time high. What’s going on?

In January 2009, when studying the color-coded terror alerts, a group of UCLA researchers found “the mentally ill, the disabled, African Americans, Latinos, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans and non-U.S. citizens were likelier to think the HSAS [Homeland Security Advisory System] alert level was higher than it was, and to worry more and change their behavior due to those fears.” The Obama administration -- deciding that the “threat condition has economic, physical, and psychological effects on the nation” -- set about to change the Bush administration’s pre-existing system. Come April, the color-coding terror alert system will cease to exist. In its place will be Facebook and Twitter.

Wait. Are you really being asked to friend DHS? The answer is yes.

It’s a supremely odd marriage: terrorism alerts and social networking sites. And one that is not necessarily as innocuous as it seems. While this friendship may make UCLA test subjects less fearful, it might make others terribly nervous, and should. Absent from Napolitano’s congressional speech is the fact that as DHS is encouraging citizens to get information about their safety and security via cyberspace, DHS is simultaneously in the process of “deploying” its ability to monitor cyberspace in the civilian sector. It is doing this through a federal technology package known as Einstein 3, developed by the National Security Agency, or NSA.

An earlier version, called Einstein 1, was originally intended to prevent a cyberattack on federal government networks from the Pentagon to the FAA. In 2009, this “initiative” made up the single largest request for funds in the classified intelligence budget. By 2010, President Obama’s assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, Greg Schaffer, said during an interview that the department was evaluating whether Einstein “makes sense for expansion” over time. Last month Einstein 3 was deployed -- and with it the ability to read content of emails in the civilian sector. The White House obliquely confirmed as much in an unclassified release of information on the new program just last month. Right around that same time, in a speech at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, Janet Napolitano also confirmed that Einstein 3 had been “deployed.”