The Biden administration is reportedly considering contracting outside firms to track ”extremist” chatter online in order to circumvent legal restrictions on the surveillance power of federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security.
While the move would expand the government’s intelligence gathering capability, it would also add fuel to the widespread criticism of the government’s vast surveillance power and spawn possible legal action over the monitoring of Americans, CNN reported, citing sources.
The DHS is limited in its ability to surveil Americans on social media sites without strong justification and is prohibited from using false identities to get access to private messaging apps used by groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the report said.
The federal government is only allowed to browse through the public information on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
To get around those restrictions, the federal government is reportedly weighing enlisting outside entities that can legally encounter these groups and gather information.
Working with these companies would allow the DHS to better analyze trends and provide more real-time information for its use and for the FBI, which also is unable to surveil US citizens without first getting a warrant or proving some overarching justification like a previous investigation.
The CIA and the National Security Agency are under similar restrictions.
The idea comes as the DHS came under heat for compiling reports on journalists and unmasking private citizens during last year’s protests in Portland.
It also comes in the wake of the failures to track and warn federal agencies about the scope of the Jan. 6 US Capitol riot that led to the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies to be overwhelmed by the mob.
“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.
“There was only limited awareness before January 6 of what violent extremists were planning through social media,” Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy from 2008 until 2019, told CNN.
He said he “would expect” DHS to work with outside contractors to track online plots, but added that “whatever gets approved and implemented has to comply with established laws.”
While much of the planning for the Jan. 6 riot happened out in the open on social media platforms, an increasing number of people are migrating to encrypted apps that allow them to hide their intentions and to thwart law enforcement agencies.
Tracking on those sites requires getting access to private groups.
And by the time the chatter hits Facebook or Twitter, it’s usually too late, a DHS official told CNN.
“Domestic violent extremists are really adaptive and innovative. We see them not only moving to encrypted platforms, but obviously couching their language so they don’t trigger any kind of red flag on any platforms,” the official added.