A US Army unit that monitors thousands of websites and soldiers' blogs has been served with a lawsuit by a San Francisco-based privacy group.
In the suit filed in the US District Court in Washington last week, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) said that despite several requests for information from the Army unit, known as the Awrac (Army Web Risk Assessment Cell), no answers have been provided.
Marcia Hofmann, a Washington-based staff attorney for the EFF, said the FoIA lawsuit is aimed at protecting free speech and privacy and helping soldiers understand how and why websites and soldiers' blogs are being monitored.
"The idea is to get more information on what the Army is doing," Hofmann said. "Some soldier bloggers choose not to blog because of concerns about what they can and can't say" online.
The EFF wants to know how Awrac finds and monitors websites and blogs and how it asks people to remove information from them, she said. The EFF also wants to know what specific rules and protocols the unit uses to determine what information is sensitive and why, as well as whether blogs and websites of civilians are also being scrutinized, she said.
"This is a compelling question... and the public should know more about it," Hofmann said.
In an announcement about the lawsuit last week, the EFF said that some bloggers have cut back on their posts or shut down their sites after being contacted by the Awrac. "Soldiers should be free to blog their thoughts at this critical point in the national debate on the war in Iraq," Hofmann said. "If the Army is colouring or curtailing soldiers' published opinions, Americans need to know about that interference."
Hofmann acknowledged that the military "requires some level of secrecy", but added that "the public has a right to know if the Army is silencing soldiers' opinions as well".
Gordon Van Vleet, public affairs officer for the Army's Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Signal Command, which oversees Awrac, said he could not directly comment on the EFF lawsuit but was able to respond to written questions about the unit.
Awrac, which is part of the Army Office of Information Assurance and Compliance, "notifies webmasters and blog writers when they find documents, pictures and other items that may compromise security," according to the Army. "Awrac reviews for information on public websites which may provide an adversary with sensitive information that could put soldiers or family members in danger. AWRAC assesses the risk the information poses to the military and determines if the next step is to request the information be removed."