Ft. Bend County rethinking program to monitor social media

June 12, 2013 3:09:20 PM PDT
Privacy concerns about the government snooping on phone calls and internet surfing has Fort Bend County taking a second look at a program meant to help emergency response. That's because it would have involved monitoring social media.

The county judge was not convinced this social media monitoring program could not be used for sinister purposes. He pulled it off the agenda after enough questions couldn't be answered.

The dust has not even settled yet from the scandal over the government potentially snooping through your phone and email records. It's a bad time, Fort Bend County leaders admit, to be talking even about developing a program to monitor social media posts.

Fort Bend Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Braun said, "The amount of information that comes out after a disaster is just way more immense than it used to be."

Braun says the program could be a significant tool to help in times of disaster. In a scenario like the Boston bombings, Oklahoma tornados or even a tragedy here, he says the program would quickly allow them to gather information on trouble spots or areas where people need help, facilitating quicker response. They already do this manually, Braun says, looking at what you post and trying to glean what they can from it.

"It's all public information," Braun said. "It's aggregating what's already out there. It's not trying to develop new information. It's not an invasive technique."

But the program is described as intelligence gathering software. It was being funded by a $120,000 federal Homeland Security grant and would have been used by not just Fort Bend County, but also by Brazoria, Galveston, Montgomery and Harris counties.

But the concerns about "big brother" watching what's posted, now has Fort Bend giving that money back. County Judge Bob Hebert wants to know more about how the software works and wants some assurance that there are steps in place to keep the information gathered from being used against those who post it. That sentiment is echoed by many with whom we spoke.

"I hope it doesn't happen," said Matt King. "I could see where people would get mad at it."

"I do believe that they shouldn't be in our business," said Laundra Sanders. "Absolutely not."

The decision by Fort Bend County doesn't mean that this program won't be developed and used in the Houston area.

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