Late last week, Bloomberg Law reported on a contract solicitation at the Department of Homeland Security for a “media monitoring” service that would track almost 300,000 news sources globally, in more than 100 languages. According to the bid, DHS wants the ability to track “media influencers,” to query the database for all coverage related to DHS or “a particular event” and to follow social media conversations. The desired database would also be able to categorize coverage by “sentiment.”
Many are concerned, especially in light of the Trump administration’s ongoing denigration of critical news stories as “fake news” and fear that the president would seek to misuse various levers of power such as merger review or “leaks” investigations against perceived enemies in the press.
In response to questions about the story, DHS’s press secretary unhelpfully tweeted that any suggestion that this is somehow out of the ordinary or a threat to press freedom, is “fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”
We don’t know much. But the right answer here may be that, even if this is nothing now, it may end up being something. That is, while it is certainly true that the public and private sector routinely use large media relations databases to track coverage and identify press opportunities, if used for other purposes or if integrated into law enforcement or intelligence databases, this may still be in the realm of Orwell.
First, there are a couple of potentially troubling aspects of the proposal itself.
Notably, the solicitation here was issued not by the main press office at DHS, but by a component that is actively engaged in the business of national security—the National Protection and Programs and Directorate.