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.