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DHS to expand collection of Americans’ social media data to combat extremism, report says

A Federal Protective Service officer within Department of Homeland Security using a computer. (Department of Homeland Security/Released)
March 26, 2021

The Department of Homeland Security is reportedly considering policy changes to combat violent extremism in the U.S., including increased data collection and analysis of Americans’ public social media posts.

Citing two senior Biden administration officials, NBC News reported Thursday that the department considers domestic violent extremism a top threat and will expand its relationships with companies that analyze public data.

DHS also plans to take advantage of data that has already been gathered about Americans, including travel and commercial data through Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and additional DHS resources.

“The idea is to identify people who may through their social media behavior be prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists and domestic extremists,” the official said. “We want to Identify the narratives that are emerging, assess which narratives are likely to incite violence, figure out what targets are likely and then take steps to mitigate the risk. We’re going to do this in a very careful way that is mindful of privacy and civil liberties, because it’s focusing on narratives, not people.”

The terrorist watch listing process is also among those facets of the department that are under scrutiny, with changes “to see if there are ways we can leverage it to take into account international and domestic travel of known violent extremists” being considered, a senior official said.

The officials said the trigger for examination would be violent plans, not political ideology.

“Domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal, persistent terrorism-related threat to our homeland today,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. “Under Secretary Mayorkas’ leadership, DHS is working closely with federal, state, local, tribal, and non-government partners to address this threat, and all of our efforts are carried out in close coordination with our privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties experts.”

The proposed changes may spark criticism stemming from privacy concerns. Law enforcement are legally permitted to scrutinize public social media posts, but civil liberties activists have said the use of sophisticated computer analytical tools could violate Americans’ civil liberties.

“The story of DHS really is one of overreaching,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “And given the urgency of the moment, these periods don’t necessarily lend themselves to really being careful and judicious about how information is collected and kept.”

Officials at the department said they will involve agency lawyers, outside advocates and the DHS privacy and civil liberties offices to address concerns.

“We have to be incredibly careful,” said the second senior official, who added that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas directed a 60-day examination of domestic violent extremism. “We’re looking at what can we do versus what can’t we do. If we’re not doing something, is it because we don’t have authorities, versus we can’t because it would violate civil rights and civil liberties?

“It is premature to say how things will change, but it is not premature to say it will change,” the second official said.