Does the government need any warrant or additional legal authority to view or collect information from publicly available web sites? A recent DHS memo received some guffaws on mail lists where people wondered why DHS would need to issue detailed privacy impact memos or justification that it was reading sites that are publicly available to everyone. And from a national security perpsective, don’t we want the government finding what is out there for everyone else to find?
John Young of Cryptome.org seems to think that the government does need some authorization to monitor publicly available web sites. Cryptome received an email from the Coast Guard about a file available on his site that indicated that as part of a “DHS wide pre-audit of public facing internet sites,” the Coast Guard was contacting “owners of CG web sites identified” that might contain inappropriate material. The email referred to a file on his site that was marked FOUO (For Official Use Only).
After confirming that the email was for real, Young replied, in part:
If you are legitimately and with authorization acting on behalf of the Coast Guard and DHS, you are overreaching governmental authority to monitor public web sites for “inappropriate material” unless you have a court order to do so or that the President has issued an executive order for such invasive action.
If you are doing this in secret or without appropriate authority, that is an even greater violation
Young has now filed a FOIA request to obtain more information about the Coast Guard conducting “pre-audit reviews.”
Any lawyers care to chime in on the situation? I don’t see anything particularly wrong with the government scanning publicly available web sites for files that they deem as important to national security, although I do appreciate John’s response about FOUO designation.