Seeking to expand its ability to monitor American citizens, the Biden administration is considering using private firms to track chatter online by “extremists.”
Currently, federal authorities are limited to browsing unprotected information on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Assuming false identities to gain access to private messaging apps, for example, is forbidden.
But the Department of Homeland Security is discussing plans to get around those limitations, CNN reported, citing multiple sources.
DHS wants to partner with private entities that can legally access private groups and provide authorities with information that could help DHS identify emerging threats.
The FBI can monitor U.S. citizens this way only by obtaining a warrant or having the pretext of an ongoing investigation. CNN said the Biden administration is looking for ways to respond to the failures by intelligence agencies to act on warnings ahead of the Jan. 6 riot the U.S. Capitol.
DHS officials insist any information provided by outside groups would be limited to broad summaries or analysis of narratives and would not be used to target specific individuals.
However, CNN said some of the private research firms and non-profit groups under consideration by the DHS sometimes use covert identities to access private social-media groups such as Telegram.
That’s a “potential legal gray area,” the network said.
But civil-liberties advocates have contended that even collecting publicly available information on Americans in bulk as a violation of First and Fourth Amendment rights.
In testimony to Congress, FBI director Christopher Wray has insisted the bureau does not investigate ideologies, limiting its social media monitoring to cases in which it believe a crime or potential crime was committed.
However, one former senior intelligence official asked: “What do you do about ideology that’s leading to violence? Do you have to wait until it leads to violence?”
A DHS official told CNN the department is “exploring with our lawyers, civil rights, civil liberties and privacy colleagues, how we can make use of outside expertise” regarding encrypted apps.
A source familiar with the effort acknowledged to CNN, however, that DHS would be operating in a space that likely would alarm civil liberties advocates.
DOJ considers seeking domestic terror law
Last Wednesday, in his first address to Congress, President Biden declared white supremacists posed the “most lethal” terrorist threat to the United States.
A day later, a senior official said the Justice Deparment is “actively considering” whether to seek a new law allowing prosecutors to bring specific charges for plotting and carrying out acts of domestic terrorism.
“One of the things we’re looking at is would we need new authorities,” Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s national security division, said during a House hearing Thursday.
Reacting to the announcement, noted civil-liberties journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out opposition to such a law has been raised from across the political spectrum. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is among the opponents.
Arguing for the law, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., chairman of the powerful Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, emphasized the need to counter “right-wing” groups.
“This is a cancer on our country,” he said. “Right-wing extremist attacks and plots have greatly outnumbered those from all other groups combined and caused more deaths as well.”
However, both Islamic and white supremacist terror have become rare, never accounting for more than 1% of all homicides in any given year, with the notable exception of 2001.
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