Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told Homeland Security Department officials on Thursday she finds it "outrageous" that agents are building files on bloggers as part of the department's program to monitor social media sites.
Department officials have acknowledged that they monitor social networking sites including Twitter and Facebook, as well as news sites and blogs to keep track of breaking news events.
At a hearing of the House Homeland Security's subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Speier said that personal information of journalists is "irrelevant."
Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), the panel's chairman, said collecting information on bloggers and people who comment on news could have a "chilling effect" on speech and violate their privacy rights.
Mary Callahan, the Homeland Security Department's chief privacy officer, said it is "very rare" for officials to collect personal data and that the information is only stored in the agency's report of the news event.
Richard Chavez, director of the department's Office of Operations Coordinating and Planning, explained that monitoring news media and social networking sites gives agents better "situational awareness" during emergencies.
Callahan said agents first learned of the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) through the program's monitoring of media reports.
Speier chastised Callahan for ignoring a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The Department eventually released the records on its social media monitoring program, but only after the privacy group filed a lawsuit.
Callahan admitted that the agency should have complied more quickly and said she was looking into what went wrong.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) pressed Chavez on whether other agencies, such as the FBI or the Defense Department, are employing similar programs to monitor social media sites. Chavez said he didn't know.
Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) expressed concern over a report from EPIC that the Homeland Security Department is using the program to monitor public reactions to government programs.
Chavez said he was not aware of the program being used for that purpose.