Biden team may partner with private firms to monitor extremist chatter online

Written by on 05/04/2021

Biden team may partner with private firms to monitor extremist chatter online

Via CNN.com:

The Biden administration is considering using outside firms to track extremist chatter by Americans online, an effort that would expand the government’s ability to gather intelligence but could draw criticism over surveillance of US citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security is limited in how it can monitor citizens online without justification and is banned from activities like assuming false identities to gain access to private messaging apps used by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.
Instead, federal authorities can only browse through unprotected information on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and other open online platforms. A source familiar with the effort said it is not about decrypting data but rather using outside entities who can legally access these private groups to gather large amounts of information that could help DHS identify key narratives as they emerge.
The plan being discussed inside DHS, according to multiple sources, would, in effect, allow the department to circumvent those limits. In response to CNN’s story, DHS said it “is not partnering with private firms to surveil suspected domestic terrorists online” and “it is blatantly false” to suggest that the department is using outside firms to circumvent its legal limits.
“All of our work to address the threat of domestic terrorism is done consistent with the Constitution and other applicable law, and in close coordination with our privacy and civil liberties experts,” the DHS statement added.
But the department has considered partnering with research firms who have more visibility in this space, though it has not done so to this point, the sources said. If that ultimately happens, DHS could produce information that would likely be beneficial to both it and the FBI, which can’t monitor US citizens in this way without first getting a warrant or having the pretext of an ongoing investigation. The CIA and NSA are also limited on collecting intelligence domestically.
It would, however, involve empowering a unit at DHS that is already under fierce scrutiny for its bungled handling of the Portland riots last summer, an episode that included collecting intelligence reports on journalists and unmasking private citizens, according to a source familiar with a recent internal report on the matter.
That leaves the Biden administration with a key question: how to address mistakes made during the Trump administration while also finding ways to respond to what critics say were blatant failures by US intelligence agencies to act on warnings ahead of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol?
“There’s a tension between wanting to empower [DHS’s intelligence office] to do this kind of work around domestic terrorism on the one hand and then on the other hand the misuse of its capabilities during the summer of 2020, gives a lot of people on the Hill pause {when it comes to} potentially giving them new authorities, capabilities or resources,” a Senate aide told CNN.
DHS officials are exploring ways to enhance the department’s information gathering within the bounds of its current authorities, multiple sources told CNN. The department is coordinating with the National Security Council and FBI as part of the effort, sources added.
“There was only limited awareness before January 6 of what violent extremists were planning through social media,” said Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy from 2008 until 2019 and has decades of experience as a career government official at agencies including the State Department.
Warrick added he would expect DHS to “explore whether contractors could help them understand plots and trends” emerging online.
“Whatever gets approved and implemented has to comply with established laws,” he said, noting that DHS can only use overt methods to gather information from social media or collect information that is publicly available.
Researchers who already monitor such activity online could act as middlemen to obtain the information. DHS officials maintain the materials provided would only consist of broad summaries or analysis of narratives that are emerging on these sites and would not be used to target specific individuals.
But some of the research firms and non-profit groups under consideration by the DHS periodically use covert identities to access private social media groups like Telegram, and others used by domestic extremist groups. That thrusts DHS into a potential legal gray area even as it plugs an intelligence gap that critics say contributed to the failure to predict the assault on the Capitol.
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