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.”

While DHS moves toward omnipresence in cyberspace, what about the real world reality of a domestic terror strike? “The most clear and present danger is the homegrown terrorist threat, hands down,” a DHS agent told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity, adding that the department’s greatest weakness “after almost ten years [is that] there’s no federal agency or department that deals specifically with radicalization. No one to physically monitor the Faisal Shazad’s of the real world.” Faisal Shazad is also known as the Times Square bomber. No federal agency was aware of him despite links to high-level al-Qaeda operatives; the attack failed because of poor planning.

A state law enforcement officer echoes the same sentiment. “The homegrown terrorist threat is the number one concern for law enforcement at the state and federal level usually because they stay below the radar and then strike.” Since 2009, more than two dozen American citizens have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. Only one homegrown terrorist, Najibullah Zazi, was being physically watched by federal agents. In Zazi’s case, agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force thwarted Zazi’s plan before he attacked the New York transit system with homemade bombs. DHS officials still won’t say how they wound up on Zazi’s trail.

“Terrorists communicate over the internet,” says another former DHS agent. No longer with the agency, he speculates as to why DHS is going to such lengths to monitor private citizens in cyberspace: “It is easier to watch individuals online than it is to set up an organization that monitors radicals in the real world because in [cyberspace] no one knows you’re watching them and no one can accuse you of targeting a specific group.”

DHS wants to be seen as a gentler, softer agency. “If You See Something, Say Something,” their electronic posters declared at the Super Bowl. But in the meantime, the threat remains the same. And thanks to Einstein 3, DHS is moving toward increasing its ability to be watching you.

I say friend DHS at your own risk.